Thursday began the first of three seven-day periods that each allows up to four hunters to use hounds in the 71,000-acre park. Ron Hillestad of Volga was one of the hunters who drew a permit for the first hounds period.
Hillestad doesn’t have hounds himself but was hunting with help from “a friend of a friend of a friend” and others who had hounds. Reached by cell phone in the park late Friday afternoon, Hillested was short of breath and high on enthusiasm.
“No cats yet, but the dogs have been on a couple of them,” he said. “We just can’t seem to make contact.”
Hunting could improve following a forecast snowfall during the weekend, which helps hunters locate lion tracks.
Hunters who draw a permit for the hound hunts in the park can bring their own dogs or hunt with houndsmen who have dog packs. The hound hunts are mixed in with five longer periods — 14 to 16 days — that each allow up to 30 hunters to hunt lions in the park without hounds.
Hounds are not allowed for lion hunting outside the park, in the season that began on Dec. 26.
The addition of hounds, the first allowed for lion hunting since the GF&P Commission set a season in 2005, gives the state a limited-scope experience with hound hunting for lions that some would like to see on a broader scale.
It also is intended to increase the lion kill in the park.
GF&P officials have documented heavy lion predation on elk calves in and near the park in recent years. The the additional hunting pressure on lions is aimed at reducing their killing of elk there.
Last year, 11 lions were killed in and near the park. So far this year, one lion has been killed in the park and three more outside near the boundary fence.
GF&P also increased the overall kill quota for the lion season to 100 cats overall or 70 female lions. The season will close if either limit is reached before the scheduled end of the lion season on March 31.
“One of the reasons we increased the lion harvest limit is with the hopes that the increase in harvest will in turn increase elk calf survival in the park,” said John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for GF&P in Rapid City.
The elk herd in Custer State Park has declined from 1,000 to about 150 in recent years. Kanta said sport hunting has been the biggest reason for the decline in the park herd, but lion predation and out migration of elk also have had an impact, he said.
Some hunters believe lions are the biggest factor limiting the park’s elk herd. They also worry about the ongoing predation by lions on elk and deer throughout the Black Hills.
The GF&P Commission was responding to those concerns as well as research documenting the predation on elk calves in the park when it set the highest kill quota yet.
Hunters killed 73 lions during the 2012 season, which ended March 1 when the quota was reached and exceeded by three. As of Friday afternoon, 35 lions had been killed this season. By Feb. 8 last year, 43 lions had been killed.