Mountain lion population sees an uptick

December 27, 2018

SPEARFISH — Today marks the opening day of the 2019 mountain lion season, and hunters may see a few more lions in the woods to pursue.

Trenton Haffley, regional terrestrial resources supervisor for the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks, said indications are that there is an uptick this year in the lion population. How big of an uptick is debated by department staff.

“As far as our population estimate, our DNA survey last year produced an estimate of 413 adult and subadult lions in the Hills. If we add a kitten estimate to that, it gives us an estimate of 532 total lions on Jan. 1, 2018,” Haffley said.

The 95 percent confidence interval, he said, ranges from 111-970, so that estimate of 532 is “not terribly precise.”

“It’s because of the potential for this imprecision that we use more than one metric to monitor trends in the lion population,” Haffley said.

The population estimate is up from Jan. 1, 2017, when 300 lions roamed South Dakota’s Black Hills.

DNA is collected from the lions just prior to the hunting season. The state houndsman will run lions up a tree with the use of his dogs, and then shoot the lions with a biopsy dart. The dart falls out of the lion with a small tag of flesh that wildlife biologists use to gather a DNA profile of the individual lions.

Those are then compared to DNA gathered from hunter-harvested lions, and using a mathematical formula generates an annual population estimate.

The GF&P uses multiple statistics to determine trends in the population.

Some of those statistics include: Department removal, public removal, road kills, reported sightings, hunter harvest per thousand hours of effort, and more, he said.

And statistics in all these indicators are up, he said.

For example, Haffley said, from April 1, 2016, to March 31, 2017, the department did not have to remove a single lion. This year, however, six have already been euthanized as they were deemed to have cased problems with people. The GF&P uses April 1, the day after the Black Hills mountain lion hunting season closes, as the first day if its lion-tracking year. The year ends on March 31 of the following year.

Currently, department policy calls for a population of 175 adult and subadult lions. That policy governed 2010-2015 and was written less than five years into the state offering a mountain lion hunting season. The first hunting season was in 2005 and closed when a quota of five breeding-aged females was reached in 24 days. The success of the season astonished wildlife managers.

“We collect and monitor a lot more data than we did 10 years ago,” he said.

Haffley said a new mountain lion management plan is currently being written, and the population objective is being discussed.

“Is that (175-lion objective) an appropriate or achievable number?” he questioned.

He said the population objective of 175 lion was set rather arbitrarily and now better science will help the department formulate a sound management goal

“Whether 175 is achievable or the right number, we need to look at that,” Haffley said.

This year, 3,384 mountain lion hunting licenses were sold. This is up 300 tags from the year before. The state sold its greatest amount, about 4,600 tags, for the 2013 season. That year 61 lions were killed.

The 2018 lion season closed on March 31, with 31 lions being killed.

The 2019 season has a harvest quota of 60 lions or 40 female cats.

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