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
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.
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.
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."
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."