Dr. Sharon and the lion hunters
Custer, South Dakota
Educating the public about mountain lions.
"Nobody is looking at the value of wild animals until they’re gone. That’s why I’m stepping up to the plate now. We have to leave a place for wildlife."
Inside a veterinary office in Custer, S.D., a husband wipes tears from his wife’s face. Moments earlier, they’d kissed their old German shepherd on the head for the last time, then given Dr. Sharon Seneczko permission to euthanize their ailing pet.
Seneczko — "Dr. Sharon" to her clients — runs a small-animal clinic outside Custer, a community of about 2,000 people in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Admittedly soft-hearted, the slim, dark-haired veterinarian says she’s also practical: "I can’t tell you how many animals I put down in a month."
That blend of compassion and practicality has entangled Seneczko in a controversial issue — South Dakota’s first-ever hunting season for mountain lions. The season allows the killing of a total of 25 lions, including five breeding-aged females; until the limits are reached, it also permits each landowner in the state to kill one lion per year on his or her own land. The season began last Oct. 1, and was halted in late October, after the maximum five female lions were killed. In all, 13 lions died in the state’s first hunt.
State game officials now say they will review what they call an "experimental lion season." But most observers expect the lion season to begin again next year with few changes. Supporters say the season harvests a natural resource — lions — and makes them more fearful of humans, which they say will reduce the chances of dangerous human-lion encounters.
Seneczko isn’t convinced. She helped to track, sedate and tag a number of lions during a study of the Black Hills population, and she doesn’t feel that the data she collected have been used appropriately. "This season is a mistake," she says. "Left unchanged, we could lose all our mountain lions from the Black Hills within 25 years."
State game and fish officials place the total number of lions in the state at around 150. Nearly all live in the forest-draped Black Hills or nearby badlands and plains, where they are isolated from lion populations in neighboring states. "Black Hills lions are a patch population," Seneczko points out. "We don’t have a contiguous habitat — we have an island habitat." Game officials, however, dismiss Seneczko’s claims, arguing that the population can withstand the limited harvest.
Seneczko is the founder of the Black Hills Mountain Lion Foundation, a 150-member group that aims to educate the public about lions, support lion research, increase public tolerance for the big cats, and protect their habitat. Last year, she and other foundation members lobbied the state Legislature to change or abolish the planned lion season. They swamped the state’s newspapers with letters, and attracted support from national advocacy groups, such as The Cougar Fund and the California-based Mountain Lion Foundation, which took out full-page newspaper ads protesting the season. Ultimately, however, their efforts were unsuccessful.
Seneczko and her allies are especially dismayed by the state’s refusal to ban the killing of mother lions. Orphaning young lions, they say, is not only unethical, but also dangerous to humans: When left alone in the wild, young lions often starve to death, or learn to survive by attacking pets, livestock or people. "People are concerned about problem lions, and I can understand that," Seneczko says. "But when a mother lion with young is killed, those young lions just might become your problem lions."
In her clinic, Seneczko opens a kennel door and takes a sick tabby into her arms. She strokes its short, colorful hair, and the cat begins to purr. But the veterinarian’s mind remains on larger felines: "No one really knows the carrying capacity for lions in the Black Hills yet," she says. We need more studies. We should be taking a conservative approach to the hunting of lions."
Writer Tom Domek lives in Custer, South Dakota. His upcoming book is titled In the Rain Shadow of the Black Hills.