Despite a recent rise in the number of confirmed mountain-lion sightings in the Yankton area, experts remain skeptical that these big cats could make Yankton their home.
A number of trail-camera photos of mountain lion taken in Yankton last month have renewed speculation that there might be a breeding population settling in to the area.
Dan Altman, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (SDGFP) conservation officer told the Press & Dakotan one of its articles featuring surveillance video of a mountain lion near the Lewis & Clark Marina 18 months ago has led to many more sightings of the elusive creatures since.
“It seems like the last year to 18 months we’ve had quite a few more sightings than normal in the Yankton area,” Altman said. “When I moved here six years ago, we’d have a sighting or two confirmed a year — at most.”
Reported sightings were easy to come by, but confirmed sightings of mountain lions were rare, he said.
“Cameras are more advanced, hunters are using trail cameras now and people have security systems on their homes, so obviously technology plays into that some,” Altman said. “For confirming them, we’ve got the hard proof and a photo or a video now a lot more times than we did before.”
However, increased confirmed sightings typically go hand in hand with mountain lions being killed by cars or culled by hunters.
“We had a roadkill cat in the early fall, just east of the Jim River Bridge on Highway 50,” Altman said. “That was a good size. It was a 2½-year-old male, between 115 and 120 pounds.”
There have been more confirmed sightings and photos since then, he said, but it’s hard to draw any conclusions about the local cat population from a photo.
“You don’t know if it’s the same cat or multiple cats,” Altman said. “You can tell a general size, but you can’t really tell sex very easily.”
There are likely sightings out there that are not being reported, he said.
“It used to be a big deal if someone sent me a picture of a cat,” Altman said. “Anymore, it’s not a big deal. I hear about sightings third and fourth hand. I think most people don’t report them anymore because it’s getting to be that common; they don’t get as excited about it.”
A number of the confirmed sightings captured two or three of the typically solitary animals on camera, which could have been a mother and her cubs, but SDGFP Regional Wildlife Supervisor Josh Delger believes that the cats will move on.
“We are only talking about one instance of reproduction,” Delger said. “It could last for many years, where we sustain numbers down here, but those animals could disappear.”
Since then, one mountain lion was harvested by a hunter and the other was described by Altman as having been killed by a car.
“So we could just as easily have none in a year or two, too,” Delger said.
The big cats are trying to settle in, but he is skeptical that they could do so successfully around Yankton.
“When you are looking at reproduction, you are looking at the potential for a cat family or a female setting up shop for a while,” Delger said. “But to take that a step further and say they are going to be a population that’s going to persist here, that takes introduction of new animals to keep new genetic material flowing in the system.”
In-bred populations tend not to be sustainable, he said.
Also, the habitat is limited for a group of large cats.
“It’s a small piece of habitat compared to the Black Hills,” Delger said. “They typically have pretty big home ranges, and it’s not uncommon for a cat in the Hills, like an adult male — you’re talking 40 square miles for one animal.”
Female ranges are smaller, with usually three females to one male sharing territory.
“So you see one, on one side of Yankton and one, five miles on the other side, it could easily be the same cat, but that’s not to say there aren’t two or three,” Delger said. “It would be really hard to maintain anything more than five mountain lions in Yankton. I just don’t see it.”
In addition, mountain lions, which are large predators, are generally not welcome in areas populated by humans.
“Over the years, people have gotten more comfortable with the idea that they are around and moving through, because it’s been happening for a long time now,” Delger said. “As far as deer hunters and homeowners with kids, though, I would be wary if I were living down there in a rural area, cautious and thinking about if you’ve got dogs and cats out or even sheep, any type of small livestock.”
The few people out west who have been attacked by mountain lions were usually biking or running, and the mountain lion just happened to be sitting and waiting near a trail and saw them, he said.
Healthy cats usually don’t attack.
“If you find yourself close to a mountain lion, they say, try to make yourself big and try to be as threatening to them as you can,” Delger said. “You take off running and it might chase you. Just hope you’re never that close to one.
“They say, back up and never take your eyes off them.“