State’s mountain lion population holds steady after years of growth

USDA National Wildlife Research Center media archivesOne of the more interesting things to happen in South Dakota during the past 10 or so years has been the resurgence of the mountain lion.

The big cats were numerous in the Black Hills until the late 1800s, but the advance of civilization decreased their numbers in the state to nothing, according to some sources. As time wore on, mountain lions immigrated into the Black Hills again. In 1978, the state listed mountain lions as a threatened species.

During the 1990s, state wildlife officials started noting a big increase in Black Hills mountain lion numbers. Eventually, wildlife biologists estimated that the Black Hills’ mountain lion population had grown beyond the roughly 150 that they estimated the region could support at the time (the estimate was later adjusted higher). Mountain lions were being pushed out of the Hills and were roaming onto the plains.

The combination of the growing population estimates and media coverage of the numbers engendered a kind of mountain lion fever in the state. Reports of mountain lion sightings spiked from fewer than 50 in 1995 to a high of nearly 400 in 2004. Confirmed sightings rose from 10 in 1995 to a high of nearly 70 in 2005.

There were reports of mountain lions attacking domestic animals and roaming through backyards. I know of only one reported attack on a human in the state’s modern era — a non-fatal encounter that was ruled "probable" but was not confirmed by state officials.

In 2005, state officials approved a limited hunting season on mountain lions. That season has continued annually, and Monday the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks said the state’s estimated mountain lion population had leveled off between 2008 and 2009 at about 250, plus or minus 30 lions. That’s about 100 more than the estimates from only five years ago.

Days before the 2009 estimate was released, many South Dakota media outlets carried an Associated Press report from Wisconsin about increasing mountain lion sightings there and in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. Few of the sightings have been confirmed, but it’s believed that lions are ranging that far away from the Black Hills.

So what does all this mean for those of us who enjoy exploring the Black Hills? Well, it means we should be alert and should know what to do if we cross paths with one of these big cats, which can grow up to 8 feet in lenth and 150 pounds in weight.

The state Department of Game, Fish and Parks provides some ways to determine if a mountain lion might be nearby, some ways to interpret a mountain lion’s movements or "language," and the following advice for people who are under imminent threat of attack:

Prepare to defend yourself in close combat.  FIGHT BACK.  Make menacing noises.  The attack may happen within seconds.  If you have any chances of averting it, it is by acting aggressively toward the lion.  If the distance is too great to use a stick, run rapidly toward the lion until you can put the stick in its face and eyes.  If you lack a stick, run towards the lion with arms high, making loud noises.  Stop before you are within striking distance of its paws.  Rapid movements toward the lion, especially from above it, may still deter an attack.  Avoid positions below the lion, DO NOT turn your back on it or run!!

About Author

Seth Tupper

Seth Tupper was born and raised in South Dakota and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from South Dakota State University in 2001. After college, he worked at a newspaper in Minnesota and then returned to South Dakota in 2003 to join the staff of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, where he is currently the publisher. Seth has won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2007 Outstanding Young Journalist award in the daily newspapers category of the South Dakota Newspaper Association's Better Newspapers Contest. Seth's day-job and freelance work have granted him opportunities to meet hundreds of South Dakotans and travel across much of the state. He also spends a lot of his free time exploring South Dakota's state and national parks, hiking trails and kayak-friendly rivers.


  1. Robert Grossmann
    Robert Grossmann 21 June, 2011, 18:33

    Mountain lions have evidently made large portions of Millette county empty of mule deer. On an area we used to see a few dozen bucks and never failed to bag a deer for the past nine years, my hunting partner and I saw zero bucks in three days of working the draws and only a couple of isolated muley does. We did see a few white tails and that was all. We.also heard of encounters with lions in the county. We saw only one gut pile and two deer that had been taken, way below the usual number. I feel that our licenses with three tags each were sold to us on the false pretense that there were adequate numbers of deer as in the past.

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