ars ago, in 1997, the total for the year was zero.
Statistics on cougar deaths kept by GF&P since 1996 — a year when just one dead cougar was recorded — show the dramatic growth of South Dakota’s mountain lion population, almost all of which lives in the Black Hills region.
They also make it easier to understand how the big cats and their predatory ways have become such a point of controversy.
There were signs of what was coming by 2002, when the lion mortality count reached 10. It hit 25 in 2004, the year before the state GF&P Commission established the first sport-hunting season on lions.
After that, lion mortality numbers climbed more rapidly toward a total count — reached when the hungry, young Spearfish cat was shot — from one in 1996 to the current 611.
The death count tells the story of a lion population — nearly nonexistent in South Dakota 25 or 30 years ago — that has grown in largely inexplicable ways since then.
“Yes, I believe that the dramatic increase in documented mortality correlates perfectly with the increase in the lion population over the same time,” said John Kanta, regional wildlife manger for GF&P in Rapid City.
Beyond that correlation, however, things get more complicated. A recent case in point was the decision by Kanta and other GF&P wildlife specialists to increase their estimate of the state’s lion population — almost all of which is in the Black Hills — from about 200 to about 300.
The “about” matters, since lion population estimates are approximations based on a complex collection of data, including mortality numbers. The recent update, which was both necessary and embarrassing for GF&P, came largely from the additional information from the hunting season, Kanta said.
That included the total number of lions killed, the number that were wearing functioning tracking collars (35) during the season and the number of lions wearing those collars (11) that were turned in by hunters.
“We had a lot more data. And it helped us come to a new estimate,” Kanta said. “We’re learning more about this all the time. When somebody refers to me as a lion expert, I tell them, ‘Hold on, I’m learning every day.'”
The general population estimate was reached through m
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