Members of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission hear testimony during a meeting Sept. 7, 2023, in Watertown. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
WATERTOWN — After receiving hundreds of written public comments, the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission denied a proposal Thursday that would have allowed the use of dogs to hunt mountain lions in a broader area of the Black Hills.
However, the commission directed the Department of Game, Fish and Parks to reassess its mountain lion management plan and bring recommendations next fall for the 2024 hunting season.
Commissioner Travis Bies — who made the motion to deny the proposal — said he supports hound hunting for mountain lions in the Black Hills, but agrees with GF&P Wildlife Director Tom Kirschenmann, who testified that the move would be premature without more research.
“I certainly understand the request from the houndsmen for more opportunity,” Kirschenmann added.
Hounds are utilized in mountain lion hunts for their scent-tracking abilities. Once the hounds detect the mountain lion’s trail, they pursue and often force the lion to ascend a tree. This “treeing” makes the lion more visible for hunters.
Research presented at a 2021 commission meeting indicated the mountain lion population was projected to decline.
As of December 2022, the estimate stood at 275 mountain lions in the Black Hills, but it’s projected to drop to just under 250 by the end of 2023. If the recent average of 26 females killed by hunters per season continues, the number could plummet to just above 200 by the end of 2024, according to the department.
Wildlife Program Administrator Andrew Norton said the implementation of the hound hunting proposal would “exacerbate that decline in population.”
And until the department brings hunters and wildlife advocates together to decide if that’s something the public wants to do, the commission agreed that the move would be premature.
“I’m not looking for this to happen overnight,” Bies said. But as with some of his fellow commissioners, he made it known that “I’m 100% for bringing dogs into the Black Hills.”
The proposal would allow for the annual harvesting of up to 12 mountain lions per year — six female and six male — in the Black Hills Forest Fire Protection District, which encompasses the entirety of the Black Hills in South Dakota. In addition, 15 permits already allow the use of dogs in Custer State Park.
Comments from the public
Commissioner Robert Whitmyre said he had never seen so many public comments filed on a petition in his two years on the commission.
“We had over 500 folks one way and 300 folks on the other way,” added Commissioner Stephanie Rissler — with the majority of comments in favor of the proposal. “I think this is a bigger topic than just using hounds in the Black Hills.”
Advocates believe that using hounds would increase the success rate of hunts and help manage the mountain lion population more effectively.
“I really like the way this proposal is written,” testified Finn Sacrison, a Rapid City houndsman. “The fact is that the petitions we brought forward are about opportunity.”
That view was echoed by James Thompson of Madison, who wrote, “Using dogs is the most ethical way of hunting cats. If you tree a female you can walk away and continue hunting.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
The proposal was also supported by South Dakota Bowhunters Incorporated, which said the move would minimize the predation of elk, mule deer, and other sought-after animals.
“I fully support allowing the houndsmen of South Dakota to be able to have an opportunity to help take more lions and give our big game populations a better chance of survival,” wrote group secretary Dana Rogers of Hill City.
Critics argue that hounding mountain lions makes the sport too easy for the hunter and commercializes the activity.
“As an avid spot and stalk hunter, I am against the use of hounds in the Black Hills,” wrote Hunter Schofield of Rapid City. “It will take away from the foot hunters that hunt mountain lions. The use of dogs will pressure the wildlife which are pressured enough as it is.”
Michael Buckingham of Rapid City added that the move would limit “access to hunting cats to those who can afford to pay a tracker;” meaning a guide with hounds.
While hunting mountain lions with hounds throughout the Black Hills Forest Fire Protection District is currently barred, it is allowed in some parts of Custer State Park between Dec. 26 and April 30.
A long history of debate
Mountain lion management in South Dakota has long been subjected to debates centered on conservation, hunting and human-lion interactions.
Historically, mountain lions were found throughout South Dakota.
By the early 1900s, they had been extirpated due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that mountain lions began reestablishing a presence, mainly in the Black Hills region, according to former Game, Fish and Parks Secretary John Cooper.
When he became secretary under former Gov. Bill Janklow, Cooper recalled, “Mountain lion management was the first thing that came to my desk.”
As the mountain lion population grew in the Black Hills during the early 1990s, ranchers, who were losing livestock to lions, and hunters pushed for a hunting season.
The department began developing a management plan to consider moving mountain lions off the protected list, “and move into a game management list,” Cooper said.
“We knew that in order to manage the animal as a game animal, we’d have to go to the Legislature,” he said. “We knew that would be controversial.”
Cooper said South Dakota State University helped with analysis and shared the view that managing the population with hunters was “the right thing to do if we’re in fact going to have mountain lions in South Dakota, because we need to manage these animals.”
Cooper said the alternative is having state agents kill the animals to keep the population in check, which can be costly, especially when “we can have hunters fund the department and do that work.”
Cooper said that while human-lion interactions were and continue to be a concern, “I could not say we have a single example of a person being attacked or killed” by a mountain lion.
Finally, in 2005, South Dakota implemented its first-ever mountain lion hunting season.
“They came a long way since then,” testified former state legislator Tim Goodwin of Rapid City, referring to houndsmen. He said hound hunters were “plum happy” with the gains they have made in previous years, and now they want more.
“It’s just going to open the floodgates,” he testified before the commission.
Game, Fish and Parks conducts regular research and monitoring to understand mountain lion population dynamics, distribution and health. This research informs management decisions, and will be central to any recommendations brought forth next year, said Kirschenmann.
The commission also denied a proposal to allow spearfishing trout during the Thursday meeting, which also drew a considerable number of comments from the public.
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.