Cat Stats: Unmotivated Hunters or fewer lions?
Andrew Bressler got his lion.
It took him far less time than it had taken me. He started hunting lions with his mother while still in High School. I remember the intensity and dejection in his voice when he told me of missing on the first lion he saw. I tried to ease his disappointment by telling him of my own failure on the one I had tracked down and the two easy shots that I bungled.
But this time everything had aligned. Andrew was on the hunt for coyotes and had been on his set for about half an hour. He couldn’t believe his eyes when the large head first became visible stalking up from the canyon below. Then the unmistakable wrist-thick tail snaked up over its back and he knew that a lion was coming into his call. What followed was truly an adventure that brought family in from as far away as North Dakota. It is one of only a few taken so far this season in Lawrence County.
As a debate coach, I teach my team that numbers lie. They only give a snapshot of an instant in time and there are always multiple causes for their dip and rise. But this year’s lion harvest numbers are following a gradual decline that started five years ago.
Back in 2012 from January first through mid-February, there were 40 lions harvested. It was a big year with strong populations of hunters and lions combined with tracking conditions that upped the total. So far this season, with good tracking snow, there have only been 14 Black Hills lions taken in that same time frame.
In the years in between, there were an average of 23 lions killed in the first six weeks of each season. Half of this year’s lions were less than two, while the average age of the mature cats was estimated at four. Three toms have been taken over 130 pounds, and no kittens, under one year of age have so far been recorded in this year’s harvest.
Here are two possible reasons for the decline, a smaller lion population and perhaps, fewer kill-committed hunters. I’ll define “kill-committed” as someone who has never taken a lion before and would be happy to pursue and harvest any fresh track they cross.
If the population of cats has been reduced then there would be a reciprocal uptick in big game populations, weather and habitat permitting. That seems to be the case and the long term goal of a stable but smaller number of mountain lions would appear to be close at hand. That reduced population target was the result of many an angry community meeting between GFP staff and outdoor enthusiasts. But keeping cat numbers down under the current system might not be sustainable if dedicated hunter numbers also begin to decline.
While Andrew harvested his lion, he admits that he wasn’t even hunting them. One of the truisms of any sport is that a small number of hunters harvest the “lion’s share” of the glory. While many people participate, fewer ever harvest a lion. The success rate hovers around one percent. After a decade of lion seasons, most of the one-percenters have harvested their share of cats. The weather can be challenging, the days are short, and it can be years in between sightings. There are only so many places that you can hang a lion and the taxidermy bills can be steep.
Recruitment of new hunters in a state our size is limited to residents with the time and resources. While one hunter has taken eight or more, many other successful hunters have hung up their rifles. Initial seasons saw more females harvested than males but todays hunters are much more discriminating and waiting for the tracks of large males before they take up a hunt. The absence of kittens among the tally also points towards greater hunter discretion.
Andrews hunt was far from over after his initial shots due to the size of his quarry and the unknown depth of the cave to which it retreated. He wisely chose to wait for backup. By the next morning, his mom and a few cousins had driven in to assist and it became a family affair.
His telling of the tale will appear later in his own words.