South Dakota Authorities Kill Four Mountain Lions in Two Days. Is There a Better Solution?

We hear from a game official and conservationist on whether there's a better method of mountain lion control.
Controlling the recently 'threatened' population of mountain lions is a controversial issue in the U.S. (Photo: Joseph Van Os/Getty)
May 29, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Sarah Fuss is senior special projects editor at TakePart. She previously edited TakePart on MSN Causes and was a senior editor at Yahoo!

Picture a 130-pound mountain lion with her two cubs feeding on a deer in the middle of your town. Kids are walking by. Homes are right there. And businesses. What would you do?

That's just what happened in the first week of May in downtown Keystone, South Dakota, the closest town to Mount Rushmore.

According to the Rapid City Journal, the animals were first sighted by concerned residents. When the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (SD GFP) agency located the lions with their kill, they removed the deer carcass and hoped the lions would retreat back into the woods of the Black Hills.

No such luck. About six days later the lions were found eating another deer in the middle of the road, adjacent to the post office.

“To me, that’s pretty cut and dry: a lion walking along a sidewalk in a municipality,” says John Kanta, Regional Wildlife Manager at SD GFP. “That’s bold behavior.”

On May 5 and 6, SD GFP agents killed the lion and both cubs.

Kanta calls the situation “unfortunate” and says the cubs had to be killed, because without an adult lion to guide them, they would have continued to prowl through town and eventually starved.

In a separate May 6 event, in the Angostura State Recreation Area just south of the Black Hills, SD GFP agents shot a male lion, which had allegedly been watching walkers and bicyclists along a park trail.

Four mountain lion kills by SD GFP in the Black Hills area in two days may sound like a high number for an animal that was listed by conservationists as “threatened” as recently as 2003, and it is. But Kanta says the 12 depredation kills in the first half of this year is similar to last year’s count. And Timothy Dunbar, Executive Director of the Mountain Lion Foundation (MLF), says that’s in line proportionally to numbers in California, where his conservation organization is based.

That doesn’t mean Dunbar, who visited South Dakota a couple weeks ago, is reassured. Killing 14 to 15 percent of a mountain lion population will cause it harm and change its dynamics, he says, citing studies by Dr. Rob Wielgus, the director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University.

According to that standard, Black Hills mountain lions should be in the red by the end of the year, whether you count the population at 100, as Dunbar’s foundation does, or at 300, as SD GFP does. Together, the kills from depredation and hunting have the potential to rise into triple digits, given that SD GFP has set the hunting quota to 100 mountain lions or 70 females, whichever coes first.

Dunbar believes hunting could be indirectly responsible for the bold lions seen in Keystone this month, since it leaves an orphan population of young lions to wander into human areas while looking for new territory.

This may be a bigger problem for the lions than the people they bump into. South Dakota has a policy of “no tolerance” when a lion enters a developed area, even though the state has recorded only one attack on a human in its history, and that was a nonfatal and “probable unverified” case back in 1969.

“I’ve said I absolutely don’t think those lions were there to eat people,” Kanta says. “But they’re comfortable walking down the sidewalks of city streets and killing deer in the middle of the road. Those are the ingredients for someone to make the wrong move or come around the corner and startle that lion, and that’s just a bad spot for it to be.”

Kanta adds that relocation is not an option due to South Dakota’s limited lion habitat. “Our hands are kind of tied in a lot of these cases,” he says. “That’s why we’ve always said, any state that’s willing to take lions from us, we’d certainly look at that as an option.”

Unfortunately, there are a couple problems with that solution. First, no states have made themselves available for this offer. Second, Dunbar says, it wouldn’t work. If a lion is transported to another lion’s territory, one of those lions is going to kill the other.

“Lions are self-regulating,” Dunbar explains. “If you allow them to establish their territories, they will maintain that territory and protect it from other lions. So, a resident lion will keep other lions out of there, and if it is not a lion that preys on livestock, then pretty much all the human inhabitants are also protected from other lions by that lion.” Hunting eliminates the resident lions and introduces problems because, he says, “all these lions that do not have territories move in there and try to grab a piece of it.”

When asked what he would do if he had been in Kanta’s situation, having to protect a town with a mountain lion and her cubs in the middle of it, Dunbar says, “I would recommend that they do pretty much what happened in California recently, in Glendale and in Santa Barbara, where they contained the situation, tranquilized the animal, and moved it out of the area a short distance.”

To make sure the lion stays away, there’s an additional ingredient Dunbar would add to the release, a method developed in a pilot program by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They’re driving them out of town and then what they’re doing is banging on the cage, yelling at it, scaring it, then they open up the cage, and as the lion jumps out, they shoot it in the butt with rubber bullets and have it chased into the hills by Karelian bear dogs.”

Though the Karelian Bear Dog Program was created for bears, about six mountain lions have been released this way, and only one of them got itself into trouble again.

Conservationists like Dunbar wish more states would give programs like this a go, but he says it has a lot to do with public sentiment. In places like Washington and California, when a lion is killed, citizens want to know if the death could have been prevented. But that’s not generally the case in South Dakota, where a large number of human settlements butt up against woods, so lions often kill livestock and hunters’ favorites, like elk. Lions there are seen as a threat, despite the fact that they’ve never killed anyone in the state.

Although the MLF works to educate small ranches around the U.S. about lion-proof livestock enclosures, there is a lot more work to do. Dunbar says, “They don’t yet understand or realize what peaceful coexistence could be.”