WATERTOWN, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission has set aside a request that would have let hunters use hounds for taking a dozen mountain lions a year in the Black Hills Fire Protection District.

The panel on Thursday chose instead to have the state Wildlife Division take a new look at population objectives for mountain lions as well as elk and deer in the Black Hills.

John Kanta, the division’s terrestrial section chief, said the state’s mountain lion plan already was scheduled for review in 2024 with possible revisions to be presented to the commission in 2025.

Commissioner Travis Bies (bees) of Fairburn said delaying changes until the 2026 mountain-lion season, which would start in December 2025, was “too long” to wait.

Tom Kirschenmann, the division’s director, said the process could be speeded up, so that recommendations could be brought to the commission in 2024 for the season that opens in December 2024.

“Essentially a year from now,” Kirschenmann said.

That would be “adequate,” Bies replied.

The division didn’t support the hounds proposal — at least not yet.

Kirschenmann told the commission Thursday that the division’s recommendation was no-change for the new season that is proposed to open on December 26, 2023. Dogs could be considered as part of whatever comes from the population review, he said.

The South Dakota Houndsmen Association wanted the commission to allow dogs to be used in the Black Hills Fire Protection District to take up to 12 lions, with sub-limits of six females and six males.

Wildlife program administrator Andrew Norton presented projections that indicated letting hound-using hunters take a dozen lions would lead to fewer lions in the Black Hills or come at the expense of dog-less “boot” hunters, whose success rate is much lower.

The 2023 season for the Black Hills that opened December 26, 2022, and closed April 30, 2023, saw hunters report 44 lions harvested, including 28 females and 16 males. The average number of female lions taken from the Black Hills during the past four seasons was 26, according to Norton, who said that continuing at the 26 pace would eventually cause the Black Hills lion population to decline.

The season in recent years has closed when 60 lions total or 40 females were taken. But the most recent time that happened was the 2012-2013 season.

Jon Kotilnek, the attorney for the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks, said the commission’s last opportunity to change the rules for the upcoming season would be the October 5-6 meeting in Deadwood.

That’s because the Legislature’s Rules Review Committee is scheduled to meet for the last time this year on November 7. The commission must get the lawmakers’ clearance to proceed with any changes to the season.

Bies wants the Wildlife Division to take a deeper look at its mountain-lion population objectives. “I’m not looking at this to happen overnight,” Bies said. “If we can’t do it by October, that’s fine. If it takes one year to do, I’m good with that.”

Kirschenmann recalled the public scrutiny in 2012 that focused on deer, elk and mountain lion populations. That led to an independent review that included a recommendation of management plans for elk, deer and mountain lions. The recommendation called for establishing population objectives.

“There’s nothing that says the population objective can’t be adjusted,” Kirschenmann said. If the commission wants to see a smaller population, the Wildlife Division is ready to do that, he added.

Commissioner Chuck Spring of Union Center asked whether all 12 of the lions sought by the houndsmen group be required to be males, because it wouldn’t affect the population. “That’s an option I see that would satisfy a lot of people,” Spring said.

But Kirschenmann said there would be incidents where a lion was harvested under the erroneous belief it was a male and the hunter would be in a predicament. “When that animal is turned in, we would have to do a citation on it,” he said. Younger males, which are smaller, can be difficult to distinguish from adult females, he explained.

The commission allows hunters to use hounds for a limited number of lions taken from Custer State Park in the Black Hills. Commissioner Bies asked how that practice began. Kirschenmann said low elk numbers triggered the desire for lions to be harvested in the park. Over time the park season was adjusted to five intervals, with three licenses per interval for hunters using hounds.

Bies in turn said there was a misconception that hounds hunters started the drive to allow the use of dogs to pursue lions in the park. He said lions take an estimated 12,000 to 18,000 elk a year in the Black Hills region.

Kirschenmann said the question about the interrelated populations of predators and prey needs to be answered by the department as well as the public. “If we’re going to put dogs in the Hills,” Bies replied, “We need to limit for less females.”

Commissioner Bruce Cull of Yankton called the houndsmen proposal “premature” even though he acknowledged that he has successfully hunted lions using hounds. Commissioner Julie Bartling of Gregory agreed with Bies — “We have a fine balancing act here,” she said — because elk and deer populations are a big concern for hunters as well. “I think we need to continue the conversation in whatever format that may be,” Bartling said.

Commissioner Robert Whitmyre of Webster said there have been more comments on this topic in recent years than in the past. “It would be good to get public comment specifically on population,” Whitmyre said.

Commissioner Jim White of Huron said that his charge as a commissioner was that the panel be in control of the resources including lions. He said information presented on Thursday emphasized the need for another look, including elk and deer.

Chair Stephanie Rissler of Vermillion said the commission has received more than 500 comments one way and 300 to 400 the other way. She said the situation comes down to numbers and the need for a deeper conversation on population objectives, including how hounds might fit in.

“I know this was a tough topic,” Rissler said.