Controversy Stalks Inaugural South Dakota Cougar Hunt

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 30, 2005

A South Dakota judge has ruled that the state's inaugural mountain lion hunting season can begin as scheduled this Saturday—rejecting an eleventh-hour appeal by conservationists.

Wildlife officials who sanctioned the limited hunt say it will provide a recreational opportunity that South Dakota residents supported during an open public approval process. They also believe it could potentially reduce mountain lion interaction with humans and livestock.

"At the same time we will maintain a viable population of mountain lions in the Black Hills," said George Vandel, assistant director of the wildlife division of South Dakota Game Fish and Parks (GF&P) in Pierre.

Most western U.S. states have some type of mountain lion hunting season, with the notable exception of California.

That state is home to the Mountain Lion Foundation, the wildlife organization that went to the Hughes County Circuit Court in Pierre, South Dakota, yesterday in a failed attempt to prevent the hunt.

"We must now recognize that, as a nation, we are leaving to individual states the ability to drive mountain lion populations to extinction, which is apparently not even illegal in South Dakota," said Lynn Sadler, president of the foundation and lead plaintiff in the case.

Cougar Comeback

Mountain lions (Felis concolor) are also known as cougars, panthers, and pumas.

When Europeans settled South Dakota they considered cougars dangerous pests. There was never a sanctioned hunting season, but the animals were often shot on sight. Cougar populations dwindled until the 1970s, when the big cat became nearly extinct in the state.

But everyone agrees that cougars have made a remarkable comeback.

"They've moved in [to South Dakota] from surrounding populations, and reproduction is excellent," said Chuck Schlueter, spokesman for GF&P in Pierre.

"Deer and elk populations in our Black Hills area provide excellent forage, and mountain lion numbers have increased greatly in the last decade or so."

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