- Associated Press - Sunday, February 8, 2015

SPEARFISH, S.D. (AP) - Since 1998, biologists with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks have used radio collars to track mountain lions as part of their ongoing studies.

That’s a thing of the past. Now they will rely solely upon DNA analysis to estimate the lion population in the Black Hills.

“We’ve discontinued radio collaring and that aspect of the project,” said John Kanta, regional wildlife manager with the GF&P.; “What we’re doing to replace the collars to do our mark-recapture is DNA.”

Using a formula with the number of lions radio collared - read “marked” and the number of lions “recaptured” - usually this meant killed during the hunting season or some other means biologists were able to deduce a population estimate.

Until recently the lions wearing radio collars were referred to as “marked,” now the “marked” lions simply are those with a DNA sample taken shortly before the annual lion-hunting season.

In the month before the season, GF&P; employees release hounds to tree mountain lions; they then used a dart gun to shoot a special dart into the lion’s rump that takes a small sample for flesh.

“We’re able to take that sample, and we are able to take its DNA. That lion essentially becomes ‘marked’ as we have the DNA,” Kanta said.

“With this method we can do it cheaper with less staff time,” Kanta added.

VHF collars that transmit a simple beep for biologists to follow cost approximately $400 per collar, he said. The department’s GPS collars cost between $1,500 and $2,000, and the satellite collars cost $4,000 to $5,000 each.

When biologists radio collared lions, Kanta said, it took at least four people. The lion needed to be anesthetized, which can lead to an unintentional death of the animal. And the lion had to be handled, which can potentially be dangerous.

“Now we can run with just the houndsman if need be,” he said.

“When you figure staff time and following those critters around and capture work, it’s several thousand dollars a month just to maintain those,” Kanta said. “It ends up being a quicker, easier, cheaper method where, in the end, we’ll still end up with the same results. We’ll still get an estimate of the population.”

The downside, he said, is that biologists are not able to actively track the lions.

Because the biologists are not able to track the lions and determine they are truly available for harvest when the season arrives, the accuracy of the mark-recapture formula is decreased slightly.

Currently there are 41 lions with DNA samples on hand that were gathered shortly before the 2015 season that began on Dec. 26. However, there is a small chance that some of those lions were darted twice.

Kanta said the information revealed by actively tracking South Dakota’s mountain lion population revealed a wealth of data to include home range size, dispersal patterns, actions taken when people were in the vicinity, and more.

Lions were tracked into Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, Canada, Oklahoma, and even more than 1,500 miles away in Connecticut, the longest journey by a mountain lion ever recorded. That 140-pound lion killed in 2011 on the Milford, Conn., highway marked the state’s first confirmed wild mountain lion in more than 100 years.

“What was interesting to see was the exponential growth of the population and how fast it grew,” Kanta said. “When we started research in 1998 we knew lions were around, and we had a suspicion that there may have been a breeding population. So we went from establishing, ‘yes, we do have a breeding population and it appears to be increasing’ to 2005 (the first mountain lion hunting season in the state) and on to 2008 and 2009 where the population increased dramatically.

“We had a long period of time where mountain lions were an afterthought or people didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about them to the point where we have lions and are busy dealing with all the issues and controversy,” he added. “It’s a huge change in just a few years.”

In 2005 the harvest quota was 25 lions or five breeding-age females. The sub quota was reached in 24 days, faster than anyone anticipated. Today there is a 75-lion quota and a sub quota of 50 female lions. So far this season, 17 lions have been killed including nine female lions.


Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, https://www.bhpioneer.com

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