No Black Hills mountain lion hunt was more bizarre than the mountain lion that caught fire. David Gray's first lion hunt ended not only with a lion, but also with an unusual story. Gray, a retired South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Conservation Office is an avid hunter and has hunted most areas of the Black Hills. He is probably one of the most knowledgeable persons of game animals in the Black Hills. In preparing for his mountain lion hunt, Gray set up a blind in a brushy thicket a few miles north of Custer State Park.
Using an animal distress call, it was not long before he caught a glance of movement in his peripheral vision. Turning his head toward the movement he saw a 100 pound male mountain lion charging toward him. Gray was amazed at the speed the lion covered about 80 yards before he came to a stop at about 25 or 30 yards away. He leveled his .308 caliber rifle and squeezed off a round.
Instantly, and to the shock and surprise of Gray, the lions neck fur burst into flame. He ran to the downed lion and quickly doused the burning lion with snow to extinguish the flames.
The lion had previously been fitted with a electronic tracking collar. When he fired, the bullet ripped through the lithium battery and ignited the gray powder inside, which in turn ignited the fur on the animal. Gray said "it looked like a mini blow torch for a few seconds with the flames blazing out the hole in the electronic device". After reporting the lion to the authorities he took the lion to his taxidermist friend, Marty Jolley of Rapid City, to see what could be salvaged of the burned animal. Jolley cleaned up the hide and had it tanned and presented Gray with a nice cape, which still shows some fire damage.
Not all mountain lion stories have a happy ending. No species of native wildlife has been more controversial in South Dakota than the mountain lion. This athletic, beautiful cat, an icon of wildlife in the Mount Rushmore State, remains a living link to our pioneer heritage. There is a certain majesty about the mountain lion that causes most people to admire the beauty and grace, but the lion strikes fear and suspicion in some people.
Mountain lions have also become living symbols of the conflicts between people and nature. No longer are they thought of as being rare and secluded to the back woods and remote canyons. Residential homes are being built in the pines and far into the mountains and canyons of the hills, closer to the animals territory. Consequently lions are showing up in suburbs, backyards and school grounds. People are understandably concerned. These incidents cause passionate public debate about mountain lion management, hunting and other control measures. Some people want a more aggressive policy that removes lions from areas where they pose a danger, or from the Black Hills altogether, while others suggest humans are the intruders and the lions were native to this land and they should be left alone.
The issues are not as easy to solve as extremists seem to think. Protecting this magnificent mammal and protecting the public is a delicate balance that starts with knowledge of mountain lion habits and habitats and what has drawn them into conflict with people.
Few people in this state know more about the lifestyle of the mountain lion than Mike Kintigh of the Game, Fish and Parks Regional office in Rapid City. Kintigh explained to me how the mountain lion population has gradually increased from the early 1960's, when they went on the protected list, to the present day. Kintigh states that they have completed comprehensive research over the past several years and continue to expand that research every year.
One of the main research devices used is an electrical impulse collar on the animals to track their hunting and movement patterns. He said there are 74 lions, 30 of which are kittens, in the Black Hills currently fitted with the waterproof, epoxy covered electronic boxes. Although Kintigh truly admires the mountain lion, he is the first to state that their population needs to be controlled, both for the protection of the lion itself and the people in the Black Hills, and a legitimate hunting season is one of the steps to accomplish that control.
Since Mountain Lion hunting was approved in South Dakota in 2004, a total of 48 mountain lions have been taken by licensed hunters in the three seasons. The 2007 lion season recently closed with 19 mountain lions taken, compared to 13 in 2005 and 16 in 2006. As Kintigh says "there is only so much mountain lion habitat in the hills, and each male lion hunts an area up to 300 square miles, and the females up to 80 square miles, this does not leave much space for an overpopulation."
He states that "female mountain lions have an average of three kittens per litter and the kittens live with the mother until they are about one and one-half years old. The survival rate in that period of time is just over 50% for various reasons, one of the biggest problems is the male lion itself, which will kill kittens if given a chance".
When talking with Kintigh you realize this is a man who truly loves his job, ask him a simple question, and facts about mountain lions in South Dakota will just flow. One of the more interesting facts is that control of the lion population is much more than just a hunting season. Each year a number of lions are destroyed because they are causing problems to livestock producers. Several lions each year are required to be destroyed because they move into or near towns and present a risk to people. The number killed as the result of automobile hits is substantial. Kintigh says that South Dakota has seen 68 confirmed mountain lion deaths so far this year, and only 19 of those were through legal hunting. He says you can add to that a number, and nobody knows how many that is, of lions killed by each other or by accident in the woods.
Each year some lions leave the area because they were run out of the territory by the other lions. South Dakota collared lions have been found in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Montana. After talking to Mike Kintigh, I realized that the personnel at the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks have the research and knowledge to make the best decisions on management of the mountain lions in South Dakota.