SPEARFISH — There was a shift in where succession mountain lion hunters bagged their animals this season.
More lions were killed in Lawrence and Custer counties than in years' past.
The likely reason — snow.
“The common factor we see is hunters are using the snow to track lions,” said John Kanta, the regional wildlife manager for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
And for much of the season the best location for snow was in the higher elevations of the two counties.
This year Custer County netted 27 lions. There were 20 lions killed in Pennington County and 19 were shot in Lawrence County - 11 of which were killed in January when much of the Black Hills had little snow. There were six shot in Meade County as well.
According to 2011 lion season results, 80 percent of lion hunters used calls while hunting and 71 percent used snow to track the animals. Other methods to hunt lions include driving, sitting on kill sites and other methods.
The GF&P found that nearly 95 percent of successful hunters used snow to track the animals and 87 percent used calls to lure the animals in.
In 2012 more than 3,400 people bought lion tags compared to a little more than 2,300 in 2011.
State Wildlife Director Tony Leif said the increased harvest limits, which provided more opportunity, and a milder, drier winter in the Hills likely piqued their interest.
"It was kind of interesting" he said.
About 30 percent of lion hunters live in Pennington County, according to 2011 numbers. Another 10 percent live in each Lawrence, Meade and Custer counties.
This year 72 lions were killed during the hunting season. It is the second year in a row that the harvest exceeded the quota. The season-ending mountain lion was killed Thursday morning. It was a 7-year-old female shot in Custer County. However a hunter shot a lion Wednesday. State regulations require that successful hunters check in their kills within 24 hours, so technically the lion shot the day earlier was the 71st lion. Another successful hunter was already in the field Thursday morning when the 70th lion was checked in. He bagged a 4-year-old female in Pennington County.
The same thing happened in 2011 when the season-closing 45th lion was killed on Feb. 21. However two hunters who were successful were in the field when the animal was checked in.
This year, the hunting activity progressed faster than in previous years. By Feb. 21, 54 lions were killed, 11 more than the same date in 2011. And the quota was also higher this year — 70 and a 50-female sub quota compared to 45 with a 30-female sub quota in 2011.
The GF&P is trying to reduce the number of lions in the Black Hills to about 150-200. Before the season began there were an estimated 225 plus or minus 25 lions in the Hills.
Leif said the goal is to find a balance between the populations of mountain lions and their primary prey, deer and elk. He said it's too early to tell if the quota increase helped meet that management objective.
In Custer State Park specifically, the elk population is in decline and is the lowest it has been in a decade. Calf production is also low. The park's elk population was estimated to be 228 in 2010, the most recent numbers available. That's a quarter of what they were a decade ago. Chad Lehman, a biologist with Custer State Park, said low number of elk was caused by over harvest by hunters, but despite reduced number of licenses predators, primarily lions, are preventing the population from rebounding.
In the park, there is only a 30 percent calf survival rate and studies show that there are about 18 lions inside the park at any given time, Lehman said.
The quota for lions has risen each year since the first season 2005.
“(The lions) can have some impact on elk calves. This is one thing we can do to help calf survival — kill more lions,” Kanta said.
But Custer veterinarian Sharon Seneczko, president of the Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation, said the quota should not have been raised by 15 cougars for 2012 because the mountain lion population was already in decline and it takes years to understand the effect of a change.
"We need to quit increasing the season every single year," Seneczko said. "We need to give it a chance, two or three years, to see what's really going on here. But there's this knee-jerk reaction and this fear and intolerance of predators."
Leif said the department will analyze the harvest data collected and will begin talking about limits for a 2013 season that will likely occur later in the spring.
"In the past we'd always talked about if there would be a hunting season, and I think we're past the 'if' point at this stage of the game," he said.
Seneczko said she hopes the commission holds the levels steady next year and waits for some long-term scientific studies on the lion population rather than just looking at harvest data.
"Perceptions are not reality," she said. "Even looking at harvest data is not the best way to try to evaluate what's going on."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.