Last week we felt we had reason to cheer when we read headlines that appeared to give the Black Hills cougar population—the primary source of cougars entering the Midwest but one under assault by draconian hunting quotas—some reprieve: “Commission rejects unlimited cougar hunts.” (See link at bottom of this preface.) That’s what we wanted, wasn’t it? But when we read the text, we realized we had been had.
2012-2013 Quota Raised from 40 to 61: Up to 2007, the Wyoming portion of the Black Hills was in a single cougar Hunt Area, No. 1. The quota was modest. In 2007, the Commission divided the Black Hills into two Hunt Areas, 1 & 30, and in 2010, the Black Hills were designated as a “sink,” an area where mortalities exceed recruitment by births and immigration. We have learned that commissioners depended on the perceptions of hunters and ranchers in deciding to designate the Wyoming portion of the Black Hills as a sink. The cougar hunt quotas of 40 in the two Hunt Areas were filled by early December—four months before the seasons ended on March 31st—so cougars must have been relatively abundant in the Black Hills as compared to many other hunt areas in Wyoming where the quotas were filled much later or not at all.
Hunt Area 1 quota – 24
Hunt Area 30 quota – 16
Hunt Area 24 unlimited quota
Hunt Area 1 quota 24
Hunt Area 30 quota 12
Hunt Area 32 (new) quota 25
Hunt Area 24 quota (unlimited)
Greater Hunting Pressure in Hunt Areas 1 and 30: On July 10th of this year, the commissioners for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department divided the two Hunt Areas into three, creating a new one, 32. Dan Thompson, Large Carnivore Biologist with the G&F Dept., estimates that 12 cougars were legally killed by hunters in the 2011-2012 season in what is now Hunt Area 32. Two of them were taken in the portion of Hunt Area 1 that is now part of Hunt Area 32. But the quota in the truncated version of Hunt Area 1 remains the same (24), which means that more hunting pressure will be put on cougars in Hunt Area 1.
The other 10 cougars in the new hunt area were killed in what was formerly Hunt Area 30. The quota for reduced Hunt Area 30 has been taken down from 16 to 12. But 10 cougars were killed in the old Hunt Area 30. To accommodate the reduction in size of Hunt Area 30, the quota should have been reduced by 10 instead of 4. Since the quota has not been adjusted, proportionally more cougars will be taken from what’s left of Hunt Area 30.
Source-Sink Management Misapplied: We can only guess why the Wyoming portion of the Black Hills was designated as a sink in 2010. The concept of source-sink management for big cats was suggested by Cougar Rewilding’s Vice President John Laundré. Source areas should be large and relatively inaccessible to
hunters, or closed to hunting altogether, as in the national parks. Sink areas should be smaller and more easily accessible to hunters. The idea was that source areas would supply sink areas with dispersers, assuring a continual supply of cougars for hunters. The only place where big cats are managed as Laundré conceived the system is in South Africa. There hunters pay $10,000 to kill a leopard in recognition of their rarity and value.
The Black Hills cougars are isolated by Hunt Area 24 from their likely sources of breeding males—the Bighorn Range, Laramie Range and Snowy Range. All adult males in the Black Hills were born outside the Hills. Hunt Area 24 is a wide area of unsuitable cougar habitat on the High Plains. An unlimited quota has been imposed in Hunt Area 24 (during the 2011-2012 five cougars were killed there), perhaps in part to deliberately prevent dispersing young males from entering the Black Hills.
Outside of the Black Hills in South Dakota, any landowner or lessee who buys a $15.00 license can kill a cougar in their land for any reason. During the legal hunting season, the quota outside the Black Hills is unlimited. No cougars were legally killed by hunters in the 2012 season, which ran from January 1st-March 31st. (Some cougars probably enter the Black Hills from Montana and perhaps from Nebraska. We have no information about possible colonizers from those states.)
A Win-Win-Win Solution? Biologist Dan Thompson told Helen McGinnis, “Part of the reason for the high quota in the new hunt area  was to have a season that was open through the winter in this private landowner dominated landscape.” If the Game and Fish Department wants to maintain the Black Hills for long-term sustainable cougar hunting, why did they designate it as a sink with a quota of 40, and then raise it to 61? Why would private landowners want to eliminate future cougar hunting and the profits derived from charging outsiders to hunt on their lands by allowing overhunting of them?
Perhaps the Department has come up with a win-win solution. Land owners who want big $$$ from would-be cougar hunters on Hunt Area 32 will profit this winter. In the past two years, the quota of 40 has been filled by early December, even though the normal season extends to March 31st of the following year. By increasing the quota, more cougars will be killed over a longer period of time.
But in the upcoming season, which will run from Sept. 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013, the number of cougars will have been greatly reduced, which will please sheep owners who do not want a single lamb to fall prey to a cougar, and hunters who are concerned that cougars may reduce the number of elk and white-tailed deer available to them. And many cougar advocates were fooled, thinking the Commissioners’ decision made it a little safer to be a cougar in Wyoming Black Hills.
South Dakota plans for the 2013 cougar season, which runs from January 1-March 31, 2013: The commissioners of the South Dakota Department Game, Fisheries and Park will meet on August 2-3. Rumors say that the quota may be even higher than this year’s, which was 70.
Commission rejects unlimited cougar hunts
July 11, 2012
LANDER, Wyo. — Mountain lions in the northeast part of Wyoming will not face an unlimited quota season this fall.
A new proposal by Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists called for an existing hunt area in the Black Hills to be split in two. One of the new areas would have had an unlimited quota. The area is mostly on private land and unlimited quota was primarily a response to concerns by area landowners and residents, said Tom Ryder, assistant chief of the wildlife division for the Game and Fish Department.