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Will mountain lion season be opened to nonresidents?

FORT PIERRE — The state Game, Fish and Parks Commission decided Friday against making changes to the 2014-2015 hunting season for mountain lions in South Dakota and one member raised the possibility of allowing nonresident hunters in the future.

Commissioner Scott Phillips, of New Underwood, asked whether it is the right time to consider making "a couple hundred" licenses available for nonresidents. Currently only South Dakotans are allowed to take one mountain lion annually but there's no limit on the number of licenses.

License sales hit a record 4,351 for the 2013 season, when 61 lions were taken. Sales dropped back to 3,293 for the most recent season, which ran from late December through March 31, 2014.

The 2014 harvest was 53 total — 22 males and 31 females — and hunters could have taken 75 total or up to 50 females.

Phillips indicated there would seem to be room for some nonresidents to be permitted to take part in the season.

He said deer and elk hunters would support it because those animals are most of the prey for lions.

"It would be a good thing for the Black Hills to bring a couple hundred out-of-staters in," Phillips said.

The two GF&P biologists making the presentation, John Kanta and Chad Lindbloom, didn't reject the idea.

Biologically it doesn't matter, Lindbloom said.

The management goal for the Black Hills is a population of 150 to 200 lions. The biologists said Friday they estimate there were 234 to 240, including sub-adults and kittens, at the start of 2014.

The method used for one of the estimates during the past three years had a potential variance of 40 to 50 percent.

Biologists have used radio collars on lions to track their behavior for more than the past decade. Lindbloom and Kanta said Friday they won't be placing radio collars on any more lions but will continue to monitor the one to two dozen left with collars.

Lindbloom said DNA comparisons are now being used to make the population estimates. Rather than capture lions using tranquilizers and placing collars on them, he said it's easier to tree a lion using hounds and shoot a biopsy dart into the lion.

"The dart falls out of the lion and we have a tissue sample from that," Lindbloom said.

GF&P requires that hunters present their harvested lions to conservation officers. DNA samples from the harvested lions are placed in a database and are compared with the DNA samples taken from the biopsy darts.

Commission chairman John Cooper, of Pierre, said the lion population should be considered in relation to management goals for deer, elk and bighorn sheep.

"The general public, especially the sportsmen, are going to say, 'Please watch this,' " Cooper said. "I just want you to know that's some of the discussion that goes on."

Cooper said he's personally comfortable with lion estimates but caution is needed to make sure the trend line "doesn't keep on creeping over the hill."

GF&P game chief Tom Kirschenmann assured the commission that would be the case. "It's high on the radar," he said.

The season will run Dec. 26, 2014, through March 31, 2015, for the Black Hills. The rest of South Dakota is open year-round and doesn't have quotas.