Wildlife Experts Say Cub Rescue Isn’t Good Science

By Ryan Woodard
RAPID CITY, SD--The image of a Mountain Lion kitten dying of starvation in the wild because its mother has been killed disturbs many people.

That image is the main reason that some states, including South Dakota, have elected to bring in those kittens that can’t survive on their own–even though wildlife experts say the practice goes against fundamental wildlife-management philosophies.

Gov. Mike Rounds said he decided in 2005 that South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish & Parks should retrieve dependent kittens whose mothers are killed in the lion hunting season. He made the decision that year when a lion kill orphaned three kittens.

“I think it was common sense more than anything else,” Rounds said. “Most people in South Dakota don’t want to see a Mountain Lion kitten die in the wild because its mother’s been shot.”

Rounds continues to stand behind the policy more than two years after he put it into place, and he says it is here to stay.

“We’ll place them as long as we can,” he said. “If we get to the stage where we don’t have any place to go with them, we’ll have to rethink the policy.”

He said he believes there is plenty of public support behind the policy.

“I think it’s the best alternative when you do have a loss like that occurring,” Rounds said.

Wildlife division director Tony Leif said the policy applies to any animal whose young is orphaned in the wild, although he said it hasn’t been deemed appropriate for any situation except for a lion kill.

The rules of South Dakota’s lion hunting season state that hunters may not shoot lions traveling with other lions in order to protect kittens. The current policy is to rescue kittens if they are deemed unable to survive in the wild if it is reasonable to do so.

Three kittens were rescued during the 2005 season and rescued seven from this year’s hunt. Those cubs were shipped to South Dakota State University, and a broker is helping to find homes for the orphans from this year’s hunt.

The three kittens from 2005 have been living in the Philadelphia Zoo since shortly after their rescue as 3-month-old kittens. One male, Dakota, and two females, Cinnabar and Sage, are living in that zoo in a special exhibit called “Big Cat Falls.”

Wildlife experts say rescuing the kittens and relegating them to life in a zoo is not a sound wildlife-management decision but is required because of public sentiment.

John Wrede, a 30-year South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks (GF&P) employee who retired last February as the agency’s regional wildlife manager in Rapid City, said the policy of rescuing kittens is based on social concerns rather than biological principles. Because of the random killing of lions allowed by the lion hunting season as designed, the kitten “problem” was inevitable, Wrede said.

“From a biological and managerial perspective, I can’t agree with it. But from a sociological perspective, I can understand it,” Wrede said about the practice of rescuing lion kittens. “Socially, I can see no alternative. But we could have avoided the kitten-rescue thing very easily.”

The lion season should have been tightly controlled, possibly by creating a pool of hunters willing and ready to respond quickly when GF&P decided to remove a problem lion or reduce lion numbers in a certain area, Wrede said. GF&P could call the hunter or hunters, who would meet and accompany an agency trapper and dog pack to track, tree and kill the lion or lions being targeted. That would have provided a more specific and controlled lion harvest and also reduce the chance of killing a female lion with dependent kittens, Wrede said.

“It would have been a very careful, measured approach to make sure we gained public acceptance and didn’t orphan kittens,” Wrede said. “We didn’t go there. And now, it’s going to be extremely difficult to go there.”

South Dakota isn’t the only state with a policy in place to rescue kittens orphaned in lion hunts. Montana and Colorado have similar policies in place. Jerry Apker, a carnivore biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said the decision to rescue kittens in Colorado is also based on emotion, not sound biology.

“From a biological standpoint, whether those kittens survive or not is probably meaningless to the population,” Apker said. “From a human compassion standpoint, we don’t find that acceptable to let them starve to death.”

Apker said kittens that are found in Colorado will either be sent to a zoo or nursed back to health and released into the wild, depending on how accustomed they have become to human contact.

But Apker and Colorado Division of Wildlife carnivore researcher Ken Logan emphasize that they take many preventive measures to minimize killing mothers with kittens. Dogs are a major factor in those efforts.

Colorado encourages hunters to avoid shooting females–especially not lactating females –and this year, created a mandatory education course for hunters to pass before getting a license. They said dogs make it easier for hunters to identify females and decide whether or not to shoot them.

“I think we have a different situation here in Colorado,” Logan said. “Mountain Lion hunters can use dogs to tree lions. It is not the same situation you have in South Dakota, where hunters kill Mountain Lions by chance, and therefore, the chance that they kill a Mountain Lion that is raising cubs might be greater.”

Rich DeSimone, a research biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said his department also tries to educate hunters to avoid shooting lactating females, which is illegal there.

The South Dakota GF&P tries to limit the loss of kittens through its rule prohibiting killing lions traveling with other lions. Spotted kittens must not be killed, either. GF&P regional wildlife manager John Kanta said that orphaning kittens is an unfortunate inevitability that comes with a lion hunting season.

The negative reaction to the number of kittens apparently orphaned this season hurts the image of lion hunting specifically–and hunting in general–Wrede said.

“This season, the way that it has been designed and the events that have transpired have seriously damaged the image of hunting and hunters in the Black Hills region,” he said. “And maybe it’s even seriously damaged the image of the agency. I don’t know that. But it may have.”–Rapid City Journal