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Whitetail deer are most of mountain lions' diet, SDSU researcher finds

FORT PIERRE -- A noted wildlife researcher delivered results from two more studies about mountain lions in the Black Hills on Thursday to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission.

Jon Jenks, a South Dakota State University faculty member, said the population is genetically healthy, based on 10 years of studying dead lions, and deer comprise more than 80 percent of food for the lions.

A third study of bighorn sheep found that most lambs died from pneumonia or predators, or a combination of the two.

Jenks uses radio collars for much of his research into Black Hills species including the latest work regarding sheep and lions.

Of 72 lambs in the study, 70 died. The survival of ewes however was 81 percent.

Jenks said lambs start to droop their ears when they contract pneumonia and that might be a cue for their mothers to abandon them and also might signal weakness to lions or other predators.

Jenks said the feeding study found that lions on average ate 90 to 100 pounds of meat per week. More than 1,500 feeding sites were tracked by taking radio locations eight times per lion daily.

Whitetail deer provided more than 60 percent of the lions' prey.

He said lions scavenged -- that is, ate from already dead animals that weren't killed by lions -- for about 17 percent of their food.

Genetic testing indicates that some lions moved to the Black Hills from North Dakota and that provided some biological diversity, Jenks said.

The commission is scheduled to receive a lengthy presentation today about the mountain lion populations in South Dakota from the state Wildlife Division.

The division isn't recommending any changes from the 2013-2014 hunting season. If the commission agrees today, the commission wouldn't need to hold a public hearing in October.

The new season would open Dec. 26, 2014, and be open through March 31, 2015, or until the harvest reached 75 lions total or 50 females before that date.

Hunters harvested 22 males and 33 females in the 2013-2014 season that began last December.

The 2013 harvest was 26 males and 35 females. The 2012 season saw hunters take highs of 27 males and 46 females.