Picture it. A 130-pound mountain lion with her two cubs feeding on a deer in the middle of your town. Kids are walking by. Homes are right there. Businesses. What would you do?
That's just what happened earlier this month in downtown Keystone, South Dakota, the closest town to Mount Rushmore. According to the Rapid City Journal, the animals had been sighted by concerned residents in the preceding weeks. When South Dakota Game Fish & Parks (SDGF&P) officers first located the lions with their kill, they removed the deer carcass, hoping the lions would retreat back into the woods of the Black Hills. But no such luck. About six days later the lions were found eating another deer in the middle of the road, adjacent to the post office, businesses, and homes.
“To me, that’s pretty cut and dry: a lion walking along a sidewalk in a municipality,” says John Kanta, Regional Wildlife Manager at SDGF&P. “That’s bold behavior.”
On May 5 and 6, the lion and her cubs were killed by SDGF&P authorities.
Kanta calls the situation “unfortunate,” and believes the cubs had to be killed, because without a guiding adult lion, they would have continued to prowl through town and eventually would have starved.
In a separate May 6 event, a male lion, allegedly watching walkers and bicyclists along a park trail in the Angostura State Recreation Area, just south of the Black Hills, was shot by SDGF&P.
Four mountain lion deaths by SDF&P in the Black Hills area in two days may sound like a lot for an animal that was listed as “threatened” as recently as 2003, and it is. But Kanta says the department is counting 12 depredation kills so far this year, which is a similar number to 2012. And Timothy Dunbar, Executive Director of the Mountain Lion Foundation (MLF), says that’s in line, proportionally, to numbers in California, where his conservation organization is based.
“Keep in mind,” says Dunbar, who just visited South Dakota a couple weeks ago, “biologists’ studies have shown that if you’re killing anywhere from 14 to 15 percent of a population, you’re going to cause it harm and going to change the dynamics of the population.”
Add the Black Hills depredation numbers to the hunting quota, currently set at 100 mountain lions or 70 female mountain lions (whichever comes first), and you’re talking about two to seven times the number of kills indicated by biologists as a dangerous quantity. (The range of “two to seven times” results from the disparity between SDGF&P's counting the lion population at 300, while MLF says that figure is not scientifically substantiated and the more realistic number comes closer to 100.)
Dunbar believes this could be the reason for the high number of lion deaths in South Dakota this month. He says the hunting is creating an orphan population of young lions, many of which wander into human areas while looking for a territory.
This is particularly problematic, because South Dakota has a policy of “no tolerance” when a lion enters a developed area.
With mountain lion attacks on humans so rare that South Dakota’s entire historical record shows only one “probable unverified” account, the question is whether mountain lions require a lethal response.
Those are the ingredients for someone to make the wrong move or come around the corner and startle that lion, and that’s just a bad spot for it to be.“I’ve said I absolutely don’t think those lions were there to eat people,” Kanta says. “But they’re comfortable walking down the sidewalks of city streets and killing deer in the middle of the road. Those are the ingredients for someone to make the wrong move or come around the corner and startle that lion, and that’s just a bad spot for it to be.”
Kanta adds that relocation is not an option because of South Dakota’s limited lion habitat. “Our hands are kind of tied in a lot of these cases,” he says. “That’s why we’ve always said, any state that’s willing to take lions from us, we’d certainly look at that as an option.”
Unfortunately, there are a couple problems with that solution. First, no states have made themselves available for this offer. Second, Dunbar says, it wouldn’t work. If a lion is transported to another lion’s territory, one of those lions is going to kill the other.
“Lions are self regulating,” Dunbar explains. “If you allow them to establish their territories, they will maintain that territory and protect it from other lions. So, they will become a resident lion, they will keep other lions out of there, and if they are not a lion that preys on livestock then pretty much all the human inhabitants are also protected from other lions by that lion.” Problems are introduced when hunting eliminates the resident lions, because, he says, “all these lions that do not have territories move in there and try to grab a piece of it.”
When asked what he would do if he had been in Kanta’s situation, having to protect a town with a mountain lion and her cubs in the middle of it, Dunbar says, “I would recommend that they do pretty much what happened in California recently, in Glendale and in Santa Barbara, where they contained the situation, tranquilized the animal, and moved it out of the area a short distance.”
To make sure the lion stays away, there's an additional ingredient Dunbar would add to the release, a method developed in a pilot program by Washington Fish & Wildlife. “They’re driving them out of town and then what they’re doing is banging on the cage, yelling at it, scaring it, then they open up the cage, and as the lion jumps out, they shoot it in the butt with rubber bullets and have it chased into the hills by Karelian bear dogs.”
A handler at Washington’s Karelian Bear Dog Program, Bruce Richards, says, to his knowledge, only one lion has been released this way, as the program was developed for bears. He says bears have bigger brains than mountain lions, so he doesn’t know if the program would be as successful as it is if it was adapted.
People like Dunbar would love to give it a go, but he says implementing a program like that has a lot to do with public sentiment. In places like Washington and California, when a lion is killed, citizens want to know if it could have been prevented. But that’s not generally the case in South Dakota, where a large number of human settlements butt up against woods, so lions often kill livestock and hunters’ favorites, like elk. Lions there are seen as a threat, despite the fact that they’ve never killed anyone in the state.
Although the MLF works to educate small ranches around the U.S. about lion-proof livestock enclosures, there is a lot more work to do. Dunbar says, “They don’t yet understand or realize what peaceful coexistence could be.”