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South Dakota elk numbers falling

MITCHELL, S.D. -- That once-in-a-lifetime Custer State Park elk tag might be harder to obtain this year.

At their last meeting, state Game, Fish and Parks commissioners proposed reducing the number of several elk licenses for the 2012 season, including seasons in the Custer State Park, Black Hills and Prairie units.

John Kanta, regional wildlife specialist for the Game, Fish and Parks in Rapid City, S.D., said the recommended reduction is a direct response to the declining elk population in the Black Hills.

"The last few years, we have been trying to address the continuing issue of the declining population," he said.

Under the proposal, Custer State Park firearms "any elk" licenses would drop from 11 licenses in 2011 to four for 2012, one of which would be awarded by a special raffle conducted by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The Black Hills elk firearms season would be reduced from 866 licenses in 2011 to 655 licenses in 2012 under the proposal. Of those, 395 would be "any elk" licenses and 260 would be antlerless elk.

The Prairie elk licenses would drop from 128 to 100.

The 126 archery elk licenses would be dropped to 107 licenses. The late season archery elk season would be eliminated completely.

Since 2007, the number of elk licenses available to hunters in South Dakota has decreased significantly.

In 2003, elk herds in the Black Hills were as high as 7,000; today, the herd is estimated to be around 4,000.

"In 2003, the elk population was at a point where ranchers and landowners were actually starting to worry about depredation issues," Kanta said.

Elk hunting licenses were increased in subsequent years to control the population.

Despite mountain lions getting the bulk of the attention in regard to declining game populations in the Black Hills, Kanta said hunters far and away have the largest impact on the population.

"Lions have an extremely minimal impact on adult elk populations, accounting for only between 3 (percent) and 4 percent of adult elk mortality each year," Kanta said, referring to a 2010 study.

The same study found that around 80 percent of adult elk mortality was caused by hunters, either by killing the animal directly or wounding the animal and it eventually dying.

Kanta did say, however, that mountain lions can have an impact on elk calves in isolated areas, referring to the first year of a three-year Custer State Park study.

For the study, 30 elk calves were fitted with radio collars. Of the 30 collars, 11 were ripped off the calves when they were caught on fences or otherwise disabled.

Of the 19 remaining collars on the calves, 16 were confirmed to be killed by a mountain lion and another two killed by undetermined predation. One calf remains alive with a working radio collar.

In Custer State Park, the elk population has dropped from nearly 1,000 at its peak to around 150.

Kanta urged not reading into these numbers too much yet, noting it is only the first of a three-year study and the sample size is very small.

He instead said elk calf populations throughout the entirety of the Black Hills are strong.

"In the past 10 years, we have wanted to keep a 50-calf to 100-adult ratio of elk; in 2011, we had 53 calves for every 100 adults," he said.

Kanta believes the elk population in the Black Hills is at a point now where it has started to level off and will begin to rebound. With a rebound in population, Kanta said there will almost certainly be a rebound in elk licenses.

The GF&P will hold a public meeting Thursday in Rapid City to gather public input on elk management and the proposed 2012 elk hunting seasons in the Black Hills.

Huber is a reporter for the Daily Republic (Mitchell, S.D.), which is owned by Forum Communications Co.