Armed with biological data from more than seven years of intense monitoring, state biologists assert that South Dakota's Black Hills region can support a population of about 150 mountain lions. They believe current numbers are at or above that level.
Young male cougars disperse geographically to establish their own territories. The natural process is key to maintaining genetic diversity within different populations.
But too many cats could mean that young males will disperse to human- and livestock-occupied areas where they wouldn't otherwise venture.
Clay Nielsen, director of scientific research for the nonprofit Cougar Network, tracks the increasing eastward movement of individual cougars.
"In the past two years we've had about two dozen confirmations in the Midwestern states, meaning a carcass, DNA, or photographic evidence," said Nielsen, who is also a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
"Most biologists believe that in many cases these animals are naturally dispersing from places like the Black Hills and the Rockies."
One mountain lion fitted with a radio collar in the Black Hills turned up 700 miles (1,125 kilometers) away in Oklahoma.
Yet it's unclear what these individual wanderers mean for the overall status of a population like that in the Black Hills.
All Lions Not Created Equal
South Dakota officials report that 1,467 residents have obtained $15 (U.S.) licenses to hunt mountain lions in the Black Hills.
The hunt is limited to a total of 25 animals, with an additional restriction of five breeding-age females. Once either of those quotas is reached, the season ends.
An additional 122 people have received licenses available to landowners statewide who own at least 160 acres (65 hectares). There is no quota on the total number of animals that landowners may kill, though they are restricted to one mountain lion per person.
Quota numbers also do not include the unknown number of "problem" animals that authorities eliminate each year on an individual basis because they have been deemed threats to people or property.
Kills must be reported to GF&P within 24 hours so that officials can monitor the hunt's progress and population impacts.
Officials hope that young males, the dispersers, will be targeted rather than breeding females and males.
"It's kind of an experimental season. We'll look at the results to decide how the next season will go," GF&P's Schlueter said.
But conservationists argue that discerning the difference between young males seeking territory and older breeding animals may be difficult or impossible for hunters. The death of many breeding-age males or females in a single season could be devastating to the population.
"During a general hunt you can't discern sex or possibly even age. I think the potential to overharvest your management target exists within that setup," Wildlife Conservation Society cougar expert Toni Ruth said from her office in Bozeman, Montana.
But Ruth also reports that simply understanding the size and characteristics of a cougar population is a challenge.
"We have difficulty in understanding population size," she said, "and the focus really shouldn't be on raw numbers of animals but on whether you have breeding not just in one area but in various areas and subpopulations.
"Most populations can sustain some amount of offtake by humans," she continued. "It's how we monitor that [offtake] and ultimately what its impact is on the population that's difficult for us to get at."
The Mountain Lion Foundation believes that the Black Hills population is too small and genetically homogenous to support a sustainable hunt.
More generally, the foundation rejects the science and ethics behind any decision to hunt the animals.
"We do not support the recreational hunting of mountain lions, and that is what this is," the foundation's Sadler said. "We think that the random killing of mountain lions, whether or not they've caused a problem, is not a management strategy."
But as South Dakota hunters prepare for their first chance at a mountain lion trophy, GF&P's Schlueter maintains that the plan balances the best interests of both humans and mountain lions.
"There are a lot of concerns from Black Hills region citizens who feel that there is too much interaction between mountain lions and livestock, mountain lions and people. There are also a lot of people who enjoy the fact that lions are present in the wild out there," he said.
"We knew that this would be an emotional issue," GF&P's Vandel said. "The one thing we have in common [with conservation groups] is that we really like mountain lions.
"But groups like the Mountain Lion Foundation are adamantly against the sport-hunting of lions. We feel that you can manage them for both sustainability and hunting and let the people decide."
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