Is mountain lion population growing?

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NORTHERN BLACK HILLS, S.D. (KOTA TV) -- You might remember when game officials removed a mountain lion last month that was spotted lurking near schools in Box Elder.

That lion was actually the sixth to be removed from Black Hills urban settings since April.

Just two years ago, no cats were removed.

Is the lion population on the rise? The answer is, maybe.

We went out in the field tracking lions with state Game, Fish & Parks biologists and came away with two things: an appreciation of how difficult it is to keep tabs on the elusive tabbies and and appreciation of just how magnificent these creatures are up close.

Mountain lions were hunted to near extinction in the Black Hills until 1978 when they were listed as an endangered species. The population rebounded and in 2005 a hunting season was introduced to manage the it. The estimated population declined and then evened out for the last five years at something below 300. But it may be rising again. The most recent estimate was 532 but that number might be a statistical anomaly and game officials want more data.

"Last year we've seen a slight uptick. Whether that's an overall upward trend we'll have to see over the next year or two," said Game, Fish & Parks' Trenton Haffley.

And how does G,F & P gather the core data used to track the population of these elusive predators? They use a process called mark and recapture and it starts early in the morning as biologists fan out across the hills looking for lion tracks.

"We want really fresh snow that hasn't really been traveled that much by other animals," said G,F & P Biologist Melinda Nelson. "And if there's no snow it makes it really challenging."

When fresh tracks are located, the hounds are called in from one of three dog teams. And the chase is on.

When the dogs tree a cat biologists shoot a special dart into the rear of the lion and extract a DNA sample.

"Getting this DNA sample right here is considered the marking of the cats so we can get DNA information from them," said Kris Cudmore, a regional manager for G,F & P. "And then our recapture is when hunters come in and check the cats in and we take a small DNA sample from those cats and then through some statistical information we can derive a population estimate from that."

And after the DNA is gathered, the dogs retreat and leave the cat alone. And the biologists hope they ultimately get good data to help manage the areas apex predator mammal. But there are few definites in biology field work.

"Wildlife survey work like we're doing isn't an exact science and never will be," said Cudmore.

The Black Hills mountain lion hunting season begins Dec. 26 and runs through March 31 or until 40 female lions or a total of 60 lions are harvested.