Just because you haven't seen a mountain lion doesn't mean a mountain lion hasn't seen you

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Some of us have only seen Black Hills mountain lions mounted indoors

Almost 16 years. That’s how long I’ve been looking for a mountain lion in the Black Hills.

Not to shoot. Just to see. In the wild.

Since I moved here from Sioux Falls in the spring of 2002, I’ve thrashed through countless aspen groves hunting for ruffed grouse —and keeping an eye out for lions.

I’ve wandered down craggy canyons with the binoculars, scanning the ledges above.

I’ve fly fished streams and back-country ponds, hiked isolated stretches of the Centennial Trail, driven logging roads and forest trails near dusk and dawn, all the while watching for the sleek, muscular predators with the long tail and mysterious ways.

Nothing. Not one. Not even a glimpse or a single blur of brown in the underbrush to leave me wondering, “Hey, was that …?”

I’ve seen lion tracks. I’ve seen lion scat. I’ve seen lion kills — those bundles of disassembled carnage, deer remnants mostly, partly consumed and covered with cat-like care with debris pawed up from the forest floor.

I happened upon one of those kills recently up in Vanocker Canyon. I was scouting for new ruffed-grouse hunting spot along an old, grown-over logging trail as the afternoon slipped into twilight. The dog and gun were back in the pickup.

 And I felt suddenly quite alone out there next to the kill, wondering if the lion was nearby or would come back and find me messing with his victuals. So I mindfully departed — with my mind and eyes on the woods surrounding me.

And I was initially relieved that the lion didn’t show. But as I got closer to the pickup and farther from the kill, my relief turned to disappointment.

Still no lion sighting, once again, which is the ongoing bad news for a lion seeker like me. There’s some good news, though.

“You haven’t seen a lion,” says John Kanta of the state Game, Fish & Parks Department regional office in Rapid City. “But I'm pretty sure a lion has seen you.”

Probably a number of lions through the years, Kanta says, maybe a lot closer than I might imagine.

“As much as you’re out there, and the areas you’re in, I can just about guarantee you’ve been someplace sometime where a lion was watching you,” he says. “You just didn’t know it.”

In this case, I really like knowing what I didn’t know.  The idea of a 100-pound-plus feline casually observing my idiosyncratic wanderings in the woods without revealing itself inspires me, even as it spooks me, just a little bit.

And, really, shouldn’t the outdoors spook us, just a little bit, as well as challenge and educate  and inspire us? There’s an edge in the real outdoors, a hint of danger that makes them more complete, more real, even more satisfying.

It strengthens your sense of respect for wild places, and your belief in their intrinsic value, something still not quite within our control.

Kanta has that respect, and that belief. And mountain lions have helped strengthen it. He has seen plenty of them out in the wild, mostly through hands-on wildlife-management work that includes following them with tracking devices, sedating them with tranquilizer darts and taking biological samples essential to their management.

But not just to their management. Also to their survival, really, as a prominent, if not often visible, part of the Black Hills ecosystem.

They’re called an alpha or apex predator, which means they sit — and when necessary spring —  atop the food chain in the Black Hills. Only the human beast ranks higher here, and then really only when one of us decides to hunt, kill and even consume a lion.

More on those hunters in a minute. For now, back to Kanta, and being seen without seeing.

In some instances during his work with lions for GF&P, Kanta would have been in exactly that situation, except for technology. He had the benefit of radio telemetry devices which he and other wildlife managers and researchers use to keep track of lions, and sometimes to capture them, collect biological samples and fit them with tracking collars.

So lions that were there but not seen were still known to him, because their collars were announcing their presence. It led to some interesting situations.

Once Kanta was with other wildlife workers when the radio signal said he was virtually on top of a collared lion. Yet he couldn’t find it.

“I was standing there and the way the signal was I knew the lion had to be right there nearby somewhere,” Kanta says. “I was looking around and saying to the other guys, ‘Fellas, it has to be right here. I mean, right here!’”

Which was about the time a full-grown female lion jumped up out of a sort of crevice below and onto the log where Kanta stood, now in a suddenly vulnerable position.

“She was standing about where that cubicle is, about 10 feet away,” Kanta says, pointing through the doorway of his office at GF&P’s Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City. “And she was not happy.”

She had reason to be displeased. First, she had been disturbed. Second, she had kittens down below. Kanta figured that in advance because the lion’s movements, as captured through the radio collar, had become localized as they do when a female is tending kittens.

So the team was going into the area to find the den and kittens and fit them with radio collars. It turned out the den was in the little depression beneath the log. And the lion, of course, was beneath Kanta. But not for long.

 Surprised and upset, the big cat was naturally defending her den and kittens, which could have been complicated for the team and possibly meant the end for the lion. But Kanta followed his own instructions to people who happen upon a lion close up in the wild. He raised his arms and spoke to her firmly, but also backed away, showing both strength and respect.

This was an unusual case. Usually when a team moves in on a collared female with kittens, the mother lion leaves the immediate area when the team approaches. Although, as you can imagine, the female doesn’t go too far from from her kittens. If for some reason the adult lion doesn't leave, members of the team carefully depart and try against another day, which they did in this case.

“When she stood off with us, we backed off and left the area and tracked in on her at a later date,” he said. “I believe we radio collared the kittens the next time we tracked in on her.”

Then there was the similar time Kanta and a crew were tracking a radio-collared female lion to replace her collar. Again, the signal said she should be right in front of them. But they couldn't find her.

So Kanta climbed up on top of a massive mound of logs and branches left in the forest from logging operations.

“I knew the lion was close, so I climbed up there to look around,” Kanta says. “And I happened to look down, and she was in the slash pile, right below me, looking up.”

Apparently lions sometimes wiggle into gaps in the slash piles and use them as dens. This one wiggled out, in a hurry, dislodging logs and branches as she fled.

I’m jealous of those encounters, and also a little intimidated by them. I want to see a lion in the wild, but maybe not quite that close.

Others will be looking at close-up encounters of another kind come Tuesday, when the Black Hills mountain lion season opens. If this season is like most, anywhere from 2,500 to 3,000 hunters will buy licenses. And about three dozen lions, or maybe a few more, are likely to be killed.

I’m not a lion hunter. The idea of shooting one of these big cats has no appeal for me. Nor does the idea of eating, well, cat. Those who have say it’s pretty good stuff. Many compare it to pork.

No thanks. I’ll stick to pheasants and ruffed grouse and, once in a while, a plump mallard breast. But I don’t have any arguments with people who legally hunt and kill lions, especially if they eat them as well. And I will continue to cover the lion season, which first opened in the Black Hills to more than a little controversy in 2005.

Actually, there was more than a little controversy in the years leading up to that first established lion season. It was not an easy process, or a tranquil one.

An unsuccessful lawsuit by the national Mountain Lion Foundation and supporting wildlife groups in South Dakota sought to stop the season, which was set by the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission. And that came after a process over several years that included legislative action to remove the lion from the protected list in South Dakota so it could be re-classified as a big-game animal.

Lions are native to the Black Hills but were essentially wiped out here by generations of unlimited killing. They were a rare sight in the hills when they were placed on the state’s protected-species list in the late 1970s.

That was about the time I started regular coverage of the outdoors as a reporter in South Dakota. And in the early 1980s, I did a story for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls about lion lore in the Black Hills, where sighting were occasionally reported and rarely confirmed. There was no known breeding population here then.

That would change dramatically, and relatively quickly. And by the mid-1990s, I was getting calls in the Argus Leader newsroom in Sioux Falls from hunters who thought they saw a lion while pursuing Black Hills elk and deer and turkey.

Eventually, such reports were being confirmed. And lions were showing up along roads and highways, getting caught in traps set for other wildlife and surprising hikers and people in and near towns in the hills.

Kanta believes if was a perfect storm of prey species such as deer and elk increasing in numbers while lions were moving in from states to the west, where their populations were well established and growing.

“So we had great population of deer and elk here, and then we had the right number of female lions move in,” he said. “And away it went.”

It went in ways South Dakota had never seen. And I got to cover it. Among the interviews that stand out was one with a woman who was living near Johnson Siding west of Rapid City. The day before she had stood just outside her back door and held one of her Jack Russell terriers in her arms while another was snatched up by a lion.

“I was in shock. I was screaming, “No! No! No! No!” Andrea Johnson told me in a March 2005 interview I did for the Rapid City Journal the day after the incident. “And the lion just looked at me. It still had my dog in its mouth. It wasn’t a bit scared. It just looked at me. Then, it turned and walked up the hill.”

Johnson figured she was within 10 feet from the lion when it grabbed her dog.

“It was a beautiful animal. Oh, my God, it was beautiful,” she said. “But it wasn't a bit afraid of me.”

A GF&P team with a pack of specially trained lion hounds tracked the lion from the back yard to a spot about three quarters of a mile away, where they killed it. It was a 126-pound male, believed to be about three years old.

GF&P’s policy was and still is to “remove” lions that kill livestock or pets or frequent towns or rural residences. That, too was controversial. But it has settled down, in part because there haven’t been as many removals in recent years.

From a high of 19 removals in the 12 months between April 1, 2010 and March 31, 2011, the kills dropped to zero from April 1, 2016 through March 31, 2017.

“Looking at that 2010-2011 year, that’s when our lions were peaking,” Kanta says. “And we were having lots of controversy, lots of removals, lots of calls. That’s where I think we peaked out and started to come down.”

The population estimates by GF&P peaked in 2010-2011 at about 400 lions. The most recent estimate is closer to 300, with about 230 adults and sub-adults and the rest kittens at one stage of development or another.

The most recent population estimate was up slightly from the previous one. But Kanta believes that in general the lion population is stable to slightly declining.

“We’re not perfect in these estimates,” he said. “It’s still wildlife management. It’s not a chemistry experiment.”

Sport hunters are part of that wildlife management, and have been since the first shot was fired on the first day of the first season on Oct. 1, 2005. There were many questions going into that season, including how many lions would be shot, and even if any lions would be shot.

It was completely new territory for GF&P wildlife specialists. And unlike nearby western states that hunt lions, South Dakota officials weren’t allowing the use of hounds in the Black Hills season. There was enough controversy at the time, they figured, and chasing lions with dog packs in a Black Hills that has private land mixed in with public forest was seen as an unwanted invitation to more conflict.

Dogs have since been allowed for certain periods with certain restrictions in Custer State Park. They also are allowed in prairie lion hunts outside the Black Hills, which has its own year-long season, that are on private land or begin on private land and continue on Bureau of Land Management and state School and Public Lands property only. The hunts are not allowed to continue with dogs on U.S. Forest Service land.

In the Black Hills season, hunters using calls and stalking lions with dogs by following their tracks in the snow have proven remarkably successful in the past 12 years. But that wasn't known in 2005.

How many lions were really out there? Where were they? And without the help of dogs, could hunters find and kill the big cats? That was one of many unknowns on the first day of the first lion season. But the answers started that day when Spearfish dentist Brad Dana brought a lion in to be checked by GF&P staffers at the regional office at the Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City.

When notified of the cat kill, I hustled from the Rapid City Journal newsroom to the Outdoor Campus West, where a team of wildlife professionals was examining the lion. It was an 84-pound female estimated to be 5 to 7 years old. Dana told officials he had seen another lion nearby when he shot his cat. And biologists concluded the other cat was a grown kitten of the female.

“Going into that season, we didn't even know if we’d meet the harvest limit we’d set, let alone have a lion come in on the first day,” Kanta said.

The harvest limit that first year reflected the unknowns facing wildlife managers, as well as a sense of caution they shared with the GF&P Commission. The commission is the citizen board appointed by the governor to set hunting and fishing seasons and other regulations and oversees department programs and politics.

For the first season the commission set a season maximum of 25 lions overall, or five breeding-age female lions. The season would end with either. Concerned about hitting the lion population too hard, the commission made breeding-age females worth five other lions in the season limit.

And, indeed, the season ended when the fifth breeding age female was shot, with a total of 13 lions being taken. That breeding-age female sub-quota wouldn’t last long, however. Nor would the maximum of 25.

And from that 13 in 2005, the season kill would increase to a high of 73 in the 2011-2012 season.  That year the maximum was supposed to be 70 lions, but a spurt of cats taken in the final two days, when one hunter who worked for GF&P waited a day to check in the lion he shot on Feb. 29, 2012.

Lowell Schmitz, a big-game biologist with GF&P in Rapid CIty, shot the lion early in the afternoon but waited until the next morning to check it in. That was legal, because hunters have 24 hours to bring in their lions. But instead of closing on Feb. 29, the hunt continue on March 1 and three more lions were killed. Schmitz said his delay was caused by family matters and a migraine headache.

Schmitz was fired about a week later, although GF&P officials would later deny that was the reason for his dismissal.

Female lions would continue to count more than males in the total quota, and they continued to be controversial — especially when they had kittens.

Oh, the kitten deal. It got emotional. The idea of kittens being orphaned and left in the woods, likely to die, after their mother lion was killed ignited angry criticism of the season, the hunters and GF&P.

The emotional outcry over the fate of orphaned kittens led to an amended wildlife policy that came straight from the office of then-Gov. Mike Rounds in Pierre: rescue the orphaned kittens.

It had nothing to do with biology and wildlife management and everything to do with emotions and public reactions. So GF&P teams were directed to search for and rescue kittens whenever a female lion killed during the season was believed to have them. That meant checking with hunters on whether they saw any signs of kittens and also examining each female cat brought to GF&P staffers for signs of lactation.

GF&P staffers didn't like the policy, noting that kittens are orphaned in natural ways without rescue. The also noted, usually off the record, that no such rescue operations go on when an elk or deer with young is killed by a vehicle or by a lion.

Once kittens were located, they had to be placed. And sometimes that meant searching for an available spot at  zoo somewhere. But there were plenty of available lion kittens in captivity, so they weren’t in high demand.

The kitten-rescue policy remains in place, but it isn’t as aggressively enforced as it was.

Research on the adult cats, juveniles and kittens isn’t as aggressively pursued as it once was, either. At times there were dozens of lions wearing tracking collars as part of ongoing research projects. Now there are six or seven.

That’s a sign both of available research dollars and the fact that Kanta and other GF&P officials are more secure in their understanding of the lion population and its management. But Kanta hopes for additional research on litter size and kitten survival.

Much of the data coming in these days comes from the lion season and the cats taken by hunters. Hunters are still required to bring the lions they kill within 24 hours to be checked by GF&P staffers.

Last year 30 lions, 16 of them female, were checked in during the Black Hills season. That was short of the allowed maximum of 60 cats overall or 40 females. Those limits remain unchanged for the coming season, which begins Tuesday and runs through the end of March — unless one of the kill limits is reached before that.

If this season is like most recently, at least one lion will be bagged and checked in on opening day.

Much of it will depend on snow for tracking, on opening day and throughout the season. Success goes up sharply with the right snow conditions.

I’ll be out without a gun looking for success this lion season and beyond, continuing my so-far-unsuccessful quest to spot a mountain lion in the wilds of the Black Hills.

But even if I don’t, I’ll be happy to think they'll be spotting me.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.