Mines professor studies evolution of attitudes toward predators

Farm Forum

Black Hills residents have a love-hate relationship with livestock predators – for ranchers, it’s mostly hate – and a South Dakota School of Mines & Technology professor is studying how those historic attitudes toward wolves, mountain lions and coyotes have evolved.

Frank Van Nuys, a history professor speaking in both a Nov. 18 lecture and an interview, said the relationship between humans and such animals had been largely antagonistic right up to the late 20th century. But since then, scientists and wildlife conservationists have developed a greater understanding of predators.

“In the 19th century,” Van Nuys said, “there’s this consensus about predators: … ‘We have to clear them out.'”

His interest in the topic bloomed years earlier as a debate raged in the Black Hills whether the state should allow a brief hunting season for mountain lions, as it does today. It was a gateway that led him to examine how humans have historically dealt with all sorts of predators in the West.

“It really struck me, this is part of a much larger story,” he said.

Van Nuys said he can understand why ranchers are unsettled by even rumors of a predator sighting in the Hills, because of the potential threat to the livestock and also to the agricultural system that has been set up in West River.

“The last thing they want to see over the horizon is a wolf,” he said.

“To see any intention of bringing them back, that’s a defeat” in the eyes of people who are descendants of the pioneers, he said. “All the hard work we did to make this place flourish” would go away in their eyes.

Part of the government’s role is to step in to control both human behavior and where the animals might roam.

South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks biologist Steve Griffin told the Journal in September that it was department policy to allow mountain lions to be killed if they are known to have killed livestock, entered municipalities or are seen obviously starving, he said.

The agency has allowed a three-month hunting season since 2005. Griffin estimated there were at least 125 and 250 adult and nearly adult mountain lions in the state.

“They naturally came back over time, and we now have a viable population in the Black Hills that we will manage as any other game animal,” he said.

The Black Hills mountain lion hunting season begins Dec. 26 and ends March 31. This year, there is a harvest limit of 75 total lions or 50 female lions, whichever comes first. The statewide season is year-round with no harvest limits.

“We would much rather let our hunters (help reduce populations) then to have to do it ourselves,” he said.

Records show 15 mountain lions have been killed since the end of the mountain lion harvest in March, mostly in the Black Hills. Some are hit by cars, others killed with the agency’s permission by law enforcement.