The Commissioners of the Department of Game, Fisheries and Parks have voted to increase the cougar hunting quota in the Black Hills of South Dakota to 70, including 40 females, in the upcoming hunt that begins on January 1, 2012. In large part, this decision was based on preliminary findings that cougars killed 14 out of 30 radiocollared elk calves. But is cougar predation what is limiting elk numbers?
Rapid City Journal
Mountain lions ravage young calves in elk study
Kevin Woster Journal staff | Posted: Saturday, October 29, 2011 4:03 pm
It’s a tough year for elk calves in Custer State Park.
John Laundre says: So? That is how ecosystems work, prey give birth so predators can eat. If predators were taking more than was sustainable, the relationship would have gone extinct 1,000s of years ago! The fact that cougars have been feeding on elk for millennial indicates that elk can stand the pressure. A 50% predation rate is NOT that difficult to overcome IF pregnancy rates were normal, which it seems they weren’t. This is especially true if adult predation rates by lions was only 1/40 or 2%. Those 39 females that survived would produce more then twice the number of calves killed by cougars IF pregnancy rates were normal! After slamming the cougars for the problems of a dwindling elk herd, they go on to list various factors that in themselves would explain the decline. Mainly recent heavy winters. How many adult elk were ravaged by elk hunters? What effect does that carnage have on the elk population? When will people begin to realize that predation is neither additive or compensatory but BASIC to the functioning of a healthy ecosystem. ALL the rest is additive and can cause declines, including human hunting (which is no longer essential so by default is additive). The elk do not exist to feed us, they exist to feed the predators that still need them.
John Wrede, a retired wildlife biologist who worked for 35 years in the Black Hills of South Dakota, submitted these observations on the elk herds of Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park:
The perception of “too many elk” in Wind Cave National Park is based on political factors and social tolerance, not biological or ecological carrying capacities. Wind Cave was moved politically to conduct a 3 year telemetry study and develop an EIS and management alternatives for a herd of animals that has remained, largely stable inside the park at approximately 600-800 animals for at least 15 years. This is not a herd of animals that spends 24/7/365 in the Park and they never have. Studies since the 80’s have shown unmistakably that approximately 30% or more of the breeding population in Wind Cave leave the park in spring and any number of them can be available for harvest in the fall since bulls, in particular, will regularly move out of the park in search of a harem of cows. Cows are most often forced back into the park due to heavy, unevenly and randomly applied hunting pressure around the park. Nonetheless, hunter harvest has helped maintain that herd of elk at an acceptable level for a great many years.
What motivated the reduction in elk was a handful of landowners who discovered they could goad Game, Fish and Parks into receipt of depredation and hunter access payments. Some of those ne’er do wells like Leonard Wood received as much as $10,000 a year in compensation for alleged damage to his fences and providing hunting access to his private land to reduce damage that was never documented. Only alleged. In a Game, Fish and Parks Commission Meeting in April of 2003,( a meeting in which the Black Hills Elk hunting season and hunting license quotas were proposed by the Game, Fish and Parks) Mr. Wood remarked to one of his fellow complainants, quote: “I don’t care how many elk they have, I just want to be paid.” Interesting that Mr. Tim Kessler was a highly influential, politically connected, GFP Commissioner seated on the Commission at that time and actually admonished GFP staff to seriously consider increasing cow elk permits even more than what were proposed at the time. Mr. Kessler testified in front of the Commission in October of this year stating it was his opinion that more cougars needed to be killed in the Black Hills due to the alleged heavy predation on elk calves and their impacts on the deer population in the Black Hills.
SD Department of Game, Fish and Parks does not monetarily compensate private landowners for purported damage caused by wildlife but, in response to the complaining by fewer than 10 landowners, GFP formulated a new, elk management area plan wherein private landowners could sign up their property for controlled hunting access and be paid a substantial sum of money for each elk removed from their property by hunters. In effect, there was also a per acre leasing arrangement made with them that invited public hunting for elk. Combined, some of these payments approached $10,000 per year. There was a very loose system of checks put in place to verify the number of animals taken from a specific piece of property but after the third year of the program, there was ample evidence to suggest fraud and exaggerated harvest of elk on some properties for profit motives. It was this complaining that moved Wind Cave to begin considering alternatives to lower it’s elk herd even though there was no ecological or biological indication that the elk were causing damage to their habitat or doing anything differently than they had for the past 25 years. It should be pointed out that Wind Cave elk are likely and historically have been the primary source population of animals exchanging with the Black Hills Elk Herd. The early 2000 years were drought years in the Black Hills and private land intolerance of any animal that competed with cows was extremely high. The SD Department of Game, Fish and Parks elk management strategy between 2003 and 2009 was best described and articulated by the Regional Supervisor in Rapid City when he said quote; ” We’re going to kill as many elk as we can, in the shortest amount of time possible, until the complaining stops.” Historically, what happens when these property rights, anti-government extremists start whining that the public wildlife is encroaching on their property and unduly hampering their god given right to enterprise, if Game, Fish and Parks doesn’t take some measures to address their grievances, they turn to sympathetic political pundits in the legislature who are more that willing and quick to propose things like changes to the Open Fields Doctrine, or worse yet, to take away the Game, Fish and Parks Commissions budgetary authority or some other irrational proposal against GFP to vindicate their constituents.
Cougars have been documented in Wind Cave as in Custer State Park and so have their kills, but no one has been asserting that they are limiting an elk population in that area. To be absolutely clear, the elk population in Wind Cave is stable and greater in number than Custer State Park, where cougars have been blamed for excessive predation and unquestionable management overexploitation of the antlerless component of the elk herd was ongoing from 2003 to 2009.
The 30 radio collared calves were captured and collared mostly outside of Custer State Park. The cows were initially captured and fitted with intra-uterine radio tracking devices that would begin transmitting a signal at parturition that then allowed researchers to locate and collar the calves. All those cows were captured inside Custer State Park but most moved out of the Park to calving grounds outside the park. This movement has been something that has been ongoing for years but management refuses to acknowledge the condition or its obvious effects on management. The majority of calves allegedly taken by predators (I hesitate to accept that assessment from the primary researcher) a fairly large number were killed (likely by one cougar) on calving grounds south and west of Hill City in a bug killed area with newly opened canopy and regenerating understory. I’m not aware of any collared calves in the National Park. The mortalities were mostly north west, east and due west of Custer State Park. I do know for a fact that the researcher discussed the mortality findings with GFP Staff in Pierre immediately after the data was collated, and the Division Directors response to that discussion was “that is too high a mortality.”
Clearly, that mortality, even though it is not conclusive and is short term data that will definitely change annually, influenced the decision to raise the staff recommended cougar harvest quota. Notice please that elk elicit a greater emotion than do deer, the cougar’s primary food source. Deer in both Custer State Park and Wind Cave national park are doing just fine……….. Nobody said anything about those critters! Custer State Park has been more careful with its antlerless deer harvest than its elk harvest. They don’t have archery antlerless deer seasons, or youth deer seasons and they are very restrictive and precise with their rifle deer season. It’s short, limited permits, no vehicle travel…………. The same can not be said for Black Hills Deer and Elk that have been over exploited for not less than 7 years by the overissuance of antlerless elk licenses, antlerless youth deer licenses, antlerless archery deer licenses, antlerless muzzleloader deer licenses and regular rifle season antlerless licenses. Here is some data calculated from Game, Fish and Parks Annual Deer and Elk Harvest Data published annually to satisfy Pittman Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Conservation requirements.
From 2002 through the 2010 regular Black Hills rifle deer hunting season we shot 10, 907 antlerless deer. During that same time period, muzzleloader hunters conservatively shot 2,837 more antlerless deer. From 2002 through the 2010 hunting season in the Black Hills, youth deer hunters killed 3,412 antlerless deer and archery hunters killed 8,723 antlerless deer. From 2008 through the 2010 season, mentored youth deer hunters conservatively killed an additional 366 deer within the Black Hills Fire Protection District. All that adds up to nearly 26,000 deer killed in the Black Hills in 9 hideously long hunting seasons that last from early September through the middle of January…… (Turkey season runs till the end of January) Now, in consideration of just this antlerless harvest,( I haven’t calculated the antlered harvest yet, which includes a huge number of buck fawns, spikes etc,) try again to convince me that the Mt Lion is the reason why we have so few deer in the Black Hills……… Now lets add another conservative estimate of known mortality that occurs from crippling losses. For many years prior to contemporary Black Hills Deer seasons, deer crippling losses were estimated at 10% of the cumulative reported harvest by hunters. That figure is likely more now simply due to the new seasons such as youth deer, muzzleloader antlerless deer, archery antlerless deer. Even so, if the 10% crippling loss figure is used, total deer hunting mortality in the Black Hills from 2002 through 2010 would approximate 28,600 antlerless animals. If all those animals were breeding age class deer, the net effect of that mortality on the population dynamic would approximate an initial additional loss of 22,880 without factoring in the extended reproduction of the fawns reaching maturity and breeding age within that time frame. The total now reaches 51,480 antlerless animals. Then, for good measure, we should factor in some road kill effects. Not knowing precisely what the road kill numbers were for those years, I think we can estimate about 1000 antlerless deer a year for 9 years in the Black Hills. That brings our mortality from anthropogenic activities up to at least 60,000 antlerless animals without properly addressing the effects on the population dynamic created by substantially reduced natality and recruitment of unborn fawns………..
During that same time frame, 586 cow elk were killed in Custer State Park, and 5,225 cows were killed in the Black Hills. Add an average (archery crippling loss is higher than rifle) 10% crippling loss to the total figure (crippling loss established in the Schmitz study) and we find that hunters were conservatively responsible for nearly 5,800 anterless elk killed in the huntable areas in the Black Hills from 2002 through 2010. That is fully 25% more cows killed than estimated in the entire 2006 Black Hills elk population. And we’re still issuing antlerless licenses by the dozens for both of these species in the Black Hills. The net effect on the population of killing that many cow elk extends to at least 7,830 animals lost because calves were not born or unborn calves did not reach breeding age and did not reproduce themselves.
It is highly irregular for wildlife managers and biologists to “react” to one seasons worth of mortality data, particularly with such a small sample size as 30 calves, but to “assume” that a portion of the calves whose trackability was lost due to the loss of their radio-telemetry collars in fences, were killed by cougars is an insult to the wildlife profession and scientific endeavor. To also engage the assumption that an estimated 60% plus mortality is unusually high; fails miserably to consider documented historical trends in elk reproduction and recruitment across the Western US. The nationwide average recruitment of elk calves into a population ranges between 25-35 calves/100 head of cows so the loss of 50% of the radio collared calves to alleged Mt. Lion mortality isn’t inconsistent with total annual calf mortality from all causes on a range wide scale. What is also not understandable is Game Fish and Parks concern and bewildered approach to recent findings that pregnancy and birthing rates are purportedly well below acceptable and normal levels. There has been volumes of research done on elk reproduction across their range in North America over the past 40 years or more and it has been unmistakably shown that a young, unstable, and stress affected elk populations have substantially less reproductive potential and do not reproduce themselves at all well when compared to an older, more stable and well distributed population of animals with a normal age class distribution of breeding age cows. We can not expect normal pregnancy, and recruitment from a substantially reduced population of elk that has a female age structure that is heavily weighted toward the first two year classes of animals due, in large measure, to excessive hunting mortality and stress induced mortality of the older year classes.