It began before dawn, as hunters slowly drove snowy forest roads in search of lion signs.
In the lion season that opened Thursday morning in the Black Hills, snow matters -- to the hunter, but also to state biologists who rely on hunter success rates and samples taken from lions killed to study and manage the big cats.
So snow conditions matter to science, too. And while there was widespread snow cover for the season opener, it wasn't the fresh snow that lion hunters love.
"We had that snow now that's probably a week old," state Game, Fish & Parks biologist Kevin Robling of Rapid City said. "And obviously fresh snow is critical to lion success, or it really helps and assists in harvesting a lion obviously, cutting fresh tracks is a big part of it."
Robling was at GF&P's Rapid City office Thursday, ready to respond to the first lion kills. Each cat must be checked in with GF&P within 24 hours, so staffers can log its weight, condition, sex and age, and take DNA and other samples. The data helps estimate the lion population and determine if the current policy to reduce it is working.
"We want to bring this population down," Robling said. "Our objective in our management plan is 175 lions, plus or minus 25. Obviously we're above that."
GF&P estimated a lion population at 300 two years ago and 230 last year. Season results this year and all the data that goes with it will help update the population estimate on the elusive cats.
The state Game, Fish & Parks Commission, an appointed citizens board that sets hunting seasons and oversees policy, has been increasing the lion kill in recent years to reduce the lion population. The commission set that downward direction, over outrage from lion advocates worried about their demise, in part because of the outcry by some hunters who believe there are too many lions killing too many Black Hills deer and other big game.
Robling said there's no doubt lions are effective predators on deer and other animals. And GF&P figures the estimated lion kill into its deer-management plan. But Robling said it's important to keep the lion and its appetite for venison in perspective.
"To say lions don't have an impact on deer populations, they do," he said, adding, however, that "the biggest tool to control deer populations is hunter harvest."