SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Mountain lions from the Black Hills area may have traveled over the past several years but few, it seems, found a new home even if they were looking for it, according to information from the South Game, Fish and Parks Department said.
Traveling is one thing; making a new home is another because it typically requires a male and female for breeding to make that new home, according to the GFP.
The GFP’s 2019-2029 Mountain Lion Management Plan said mountain lions may move from the Black Hills region as the population there increases and younger lions look for different habitat and breeding opportunities.
It appears at least several mountain lions have made a home around Yankton.
Two South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks employees said increased sightings in the Yankton area indicate the possibility that mountain lions are living in that area.
The GFP can’t confirm for certain that mountain lions live in the Yankton area but “I wouldn’t say it’s unheard of…” said Trenton Haffley, a regional terrestrial resource supervisor for the GFP office the Rapid City. Haffley works in the region where most of South Dakota’s mountain lions live.
An increased number of mountain lions have been passing through the Yankton area for the past 10 or 15 years, said Josh Delger, a regional terrestrial resource supervisor for the GFP in the Sioux Falls office.
Eventually, a young adult male and a young adult female “will set up shop” and live in the area, Delger said.
Delger believes mountain lions are likely living in the Yankton area.
A traveling mountain lion may stop in the Yankton area and decide to live there for a year or two or longer, Haffley said.
A recent sighting in the Yankton area was recorded on a trail camera in December. The Twitter photo is shown below.
In 2018-2019, there were more than 100 reports of mountain lion sightings in the state. The GFP said less than 50 of those were verified.
The estimated mountain lion population for 2017-2018 was 532.
The mountain lions in the Yankton area may be from the Black Hills area but they could also be from Nebraska or even Wyoming. The Nebraska Game and Parks agency said on its website that mountain lions in Nebraska are part of the larger population that spans all western states. The animals move between Nebraska and neighboring states, particularly South Dakota and Wyoming.
While the Yankton area may not be a traditional site for mountain lions, it does have features that would make it attractive.
The area is near the Missouri River with woods and shrubs along the river making it somewhat similar to the prairies of western South Dakota. It’s terrain that is attractive to mountain lions.
“Although a mountain lion habitat analysis has not been conducted for the prairies of western South Dakota, there are existing habitats that include wooded river breaks, deep wooded draws and river bottoms that support deer populations and prey species conducive to mountain lion needs,” the 2019-2029 GFP Mountain Lion Management Plan said.
The SDGFP divides the habitat areas into the Black Hills region and the prairie, which would include the Yankton area.
Most mountain lions in South Dakota are found in the Black Hills region of the state.
A map from the Mountain Lion Foundation of Sacramento, California, identifies a mountain lion distribution area near the Missouri River in southeastern South Dakota, not far from Yankton. The foundation uses U.S. Geological Services Gap Analysis to develop the map. The National GAP Analysis Programs listing of suitable habitat and prey species probability “virtually guarantees that mountain lions could exist anywhere within the state,” the foundation’s website said.
Haffley said although the Mountain Lion Federation map shows a different distribution system then the GFP’s management plan, it leaves out parts of the Black Hills region where the GFP knows mountain lions live.
Parts of Nebraska have mountain lion habitat near the Black Hills region in the Pine Ridge area, according to the Nebraska Game and Parks agency. Mountain lions are also in the Niobrara Valley in the northern central to north eastern part near the Niobrara River and Wildcat Hills area near Scottsbluff, the agency’s website said.
Mountain lions from the Black Hills region have been known to travel, even across the prairie.
A Black Hills mountain lion traveled from South Dakota to Oklahoma in 2005, according to a 2005 study conducted by South Dakota State University for the GFP.
In 2011, a female mountain lion traveled from the Black Hills to Montana, according to a SDSU study.
And one male apparently traveled about 1,800 miles to Connecticut in 2011. The mountain lion was related to mountain lions in the Black Hills, North Dakota and Nebraska, a 2016 study said. The lion was killed on a highway in Connecticut.
Most of the mountain lions who travel are transient male lions, according to the South Dakota GFP.
Sightings and deaths are two indicators of where mountain lions live and travel.
Since 2000, there have been 125 mountain lion deaths documented outside of the Black Hills Fire Protection District, the GFP said in the 2019 Mountain Lion Survey. Of those, 32 were female (five adults, 27 sub-adults) and 93 were male (13 adults, 78 sub-adults, two kittens).
The GFP said 1,098 mortality events were documented in South Dakota from 1996-1997 to 2018-2019. During the same time period, 973 mortality events were documented in the Black Hills region, the 2019 GFP mountain lion survey said.
The state has a mountain lion hunting season that applies to the Black Hills region. The 2020 season in the Black Hills Fire Protection District is from Dec. 26, 2019, to April 30, 2020. The season previously closed on March 31. The commission also increased Custer State Park access permits from 57 to 75. The season was to end if the harvest limit of 60 mountain lions, or 40 females, is met at an earlier date, the GFP said.
The hunting season is year round for areas outside the Black Hills Fire Protection District. Hunters need to obtain a license and need permission to hunt on private land.
Delger said that a mountain lion was killed by a hunter this fall in the Yankton area.
The 2017-2019 hunting report from the GFP said 11 lions were harvested on the prairie outside of the Black Hills Fire Protection District from April 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018.
Most mountain lions are hunted and killed in the Black Hills Region or Custer State Park.
All reported mountain lion deaths are recorded by the GFP.
Haffley said a dead mountain lion was reported near the intersection of Highway 50 and 447th Avenue near Yankton on Sept. 1.
A trio of mountain lions were photographed by a trail camera near Lewis and Clark Park by Yankton on Aug. 31, Haffley said. The report said it appeared to be a female lion with two kittens, or two juvenile lions, Haffley said.
There were 406 reported sightings in 2004-2005 in South Dakota, the highest reported from 1994-1995 through 2018-2019. Less than 100 were verified.
A GFP graphic shows the difference between the number of reported mountain lion sightings and those verified.
If it does travel, a mountain lion appears to be taking a risk when it travels from familiar habitat.
“Once a mountain lion left the study area, it was traversing areas that had been devoid of breeding mountain lion populations for at least 100 years, effectively removing intraspecific competition,” the GFP 2019-2029 Mountain Lion Management Plan said.
But if it does decide to settle somewhere, it appears the mountain lion can adapt.
“Nevertheless, mountain lions are remarkably adaptable to modified landscapes and maintaining their population does not require vast areas of wilderness,” a study cited by the GFP in its 2019-2029 Mountain Lion Management Plan said.
Lions may adapt to the environment but they still need to breed.
Haffley said unless female mountain lions travel and move to where the males are, it’s unlikely males will stick around for a long time. And females usually travel as far as males.
Whether or not mountain lions have made a permanent home around Yankton, the area is not part of GFP population goals in the 2019-2029 plan.
“Population objectives for mountain lions on the prairie habitats of South Dakota have not been established as these areas are managed primarily to abate potential livestock losses on private property, minimize human conflicts, and maximize hunter opportunity,” GFP said in its mountain lion management plan.