Lawsuit Filed to Block South Dakota's First Mountain Lion Hunt

PIERRE, South Dakota, September 27, 2005 (ENS) - Conservationists today filed legal action to stop a recreational hunt that they say could wipe out mountain lions in South Dakota.

South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks officials last week approved a recreational mountain lion hunt beginning October 1 in the Black Hills. A total of 25 lions may be killed, up to five of which can be breeding females. But mountain lion kittens and any mountain lion accompanying kittens may not be taken.

Additionally, the agency will permit every landowner with at least 160 acres outside the Black Hills to kill one lion per year on their property, and those lions will not be counted towards the quota of 25. In addition, a citizen may kill a mountain lion to protect human life from an immediate or imminent threat at any time, the agency says.

Lynn Sadler, president of the Mountain Lion Foundation which is lead plaintiff in the case, says, "The breeding population there is no bigger than that of the federally endangered mountain lion of Florida - the Florida panther. Any disturbance of the panther is prohibited by law and should be in this case as well.”

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Mountain lion, or puma, in South Dakota. Accurate population figures are not available for this species. (Photo courtesy SDGFP)
The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order, a writ of prohibition, and a preliminary injunction against the hunt that would stop it until the case can be argued on its merits, Sadler says. The plaintiffs expect a hearing tomorrow in the Circuit Court of Hughes County in Pierre.

The mountain lion, also called a cougar or puma, Puma concolor, is not listed as endangered or threatened in the United States. Once widely distributed from Canada to South America, mountain lion habitat has been reduced to the most remote and inaccessible areas.

No exact count of remainining mountain lions is available either statewide in South Dakota, or nationally, but the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks says "the Black Hills of South Dakota can support a population of 145 mountain lions."

Mountain Lion Foundation conservation biologist Christopher Papouchis says, "This essentially unlimited hunt could lead to the extinction of the small and isolated population of mountain lions in the Black Hills, especially when on-going depredation kills, road kills, fires and habitat loss are already adding to the toll."

As top carnivores, mountain lions are considered a keystone species maintaining the health of entire ecosystems, and it is not necessary to remove every single lion to trigger their extinction. Conservation biologists state that loss of a top carnivore "appears to lead inexorably to ecosystem simplification accompanied by a rush of extinctions."

South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Wildlife Program Administrator Tony Leif says that biological data collected from the past 20 years of general monitoring, and seven years of intense monitoring of mountain lions in the state "support the establishment of this hunting season."

"Monitoring results indicate the Black Hills can support a population of approximately 145 mountain lions, and documented dispersal of mountain lions out of the Black Hills strongly indicates that the population is above this level," Leif said.

"The recommended harvest limit is derived from the estimated size and composition of the population and documented rate of mountain lion deaths and births," he said, adding that breeding-age female mountain lions would be least susceptible to harvest during this season because of their tendency to stay in remote areas and travel less than males and adolescent females.

Conservationists dispute this estimate which they will claim in court is based on poor documentation.

In the late 1800s, mountain lion ranged throughout South Dakota, until a bounty was placed on them in 1889. By the 1930s, mountain lions were thought to be extinct in South Dakota due to hunting pressure.

At some unknown time over the next 40 years, mountain lions immigrated into Black Hills and established a new population. In, 1978 the South Dakota Legislature designated mountain lions as a threatened species.

In January 2003, the South Dakota Department of Fish, Game and Parks proposed removing mountain lions from state threatened list. Conservationists, including the Mountain Lion Foundation, testified that there is insufficient evidence to justify this change of status.

In August 2005, by a vote of seven to one, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission approved the hunt and expanded it outside the Black Hills to the entire state. Conservationists appealed the decision but the Commission denied their appeal.

The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Game, Fish and Parks is acting illegally by failing to conserve mountain lions and misapplying the findings from a graduate school dissertation.

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Mountain lions once ranged across the Western states and Western Canada. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
"We are losing what makes the West wild," said Dr. Sharon Seneczko, of Custer who donated veterinary services to Black Hills lion research and leads the Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. "When a resource this valuable is at stake, we need to take a very conservative approach."

"The agency has tried to cloak this hunt in a veil of science when in fact it is simply providing recreation for sport hunters," said Bruce Wagman, attorney for the plaintiffs. "It is clear that the reasons given for the hunt are a sham and that there is nothing but a desire to kill lions that supports the agency's actions."

Wagman pointed out that the agency's own lion management plan admits further research is necessary "to determine the long-term viability of the population."

"The thing we can state definitively," said Wagman, "is that the agency can wipe out an entire mountain lion population with this plan."

According to Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) big game research biologist John Kanta of Rapid City research will be conducted on slain mountain lions in each of the two separate units for hunting mountain lions. He says each unit has different reporting requirements.

"If a hunter harvests a lion in the Black Hills unit, he or she has 24 hours to bring the lion to the Rapid City GFP Office for inspection," Kanta said. "The second unit is the prairie unit that comprises the remainder of South Dakota outside the Black Hills unit. Any person who harvests a mountain lion within the prairie unit must contact a conservation officer, state trapper or other GFP representative within 24 hours of harvest and arrange for inspection and pelt tagging."

The biological information obtained from the carcass will be valuable to the research being conducted and to justify future seasons, Kanta says. "Big game biologists have specific information - age, sex, weight, length, etc. - to be collected from each and every carcass so a department official will be available around the clock during this season."

South Dakota’s mountain lion season runs October 1 through December 15 in both units. The mountain lion season in the Black Hills unit will end earlier if the limit of 25 mountain lions, or five breeding-age females, is met at an earlier date.

South Dakota's current management plan, already in place, specifically targets problem lions. The the hunt allows the shooting of lions whether or not they have caused a problem.

The agency has claimed that the hunt is intended to reduce human-lion conflicts, but in published reports the agency has acknowledged agreement with the nation's leading lion scientists who state that a sport hunt has no effect on such conflicts.

One half of all mountain lions ever recorded killed in the United States have been killed in the last 10 years, the plaintiffs say. The mountain lion has been driven to extinction in 35 states, and in Florida the small population of similar Florida panthers is listed as federally endangered.

"The Mountain Lion Foundation is putting all game agencies on notice," Sadler said. Citing a 2004 report by the IUCN-World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission Cat Specialist Group, Sadler said, "International scientists responsible for monitoring the state of the world's species have declared the mountain lion is actively threatened due to high levels of hunting pressure."

Sadler said, "Americans should be outraged at how many Western states are treating America's lion."