An Estelline trail cam last week captured images of a lion reconnoitering the area. Estelline resident Jacob Ebbers had set up the camera on property north of town, scouting the area for deer populations.
Proof positive that some of the state’s mountain lions have left the mountains to stake out new territory in eastern South Dakota was produced this week by an Estelline hunter.
A trail camera set up by bowhunter Jacob Ebbers just north of Estelline captured a sequence of three images of a mountain lion scouting Ebbers’ favorite deer-hunting land.
The photos, taken about 7 p.m. on Sept. 12, show the lion strolling across the property, which is located about six miles north of Estelline.
Hamlin County Conservation Officer Brook Brown says he’s visited the site where the lion was photographed and examined the images.
“This is a confirmed sighting,” Brown said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
The confirmation was repeated by Scott Lindgren, regional wildlife manager for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
“We were not able to come up with any signs – a track or scat or any scratchings,” Lindgren said. “The site and where the camera was (located) looked real legit."
According to a report in the Watertown Public Opinion, Lindgren said there is no evidence to suggest the mountain lion is still in the area. The GFP official said his officers have received no reports of signs of aggression toward people or animals.
Game or trail cameras, like the one Ebbers used to photograph the lion, are typically used by deer or turkey hunters to scout an area for future hunting. The cameras are generally equipped with motion sensors which activate the camera when animals come into its field.
Ebbers discovered the pictures Wednesday of last week when he checked the camera he and hunting partner Tony Klosterboer had set up on land a farmer friend had given them permission to hunt.
The mountain lion picture surprised the 23-year-old bowhunter, but he says it won’t stop him from scouting the land.
“It does make you think a little,” Ebbers said. “You probably don’t want to be walking around out there after dark. But if there’s a deer out there worth shooting, we’ll be out there looking for it.”
While wildlife officials are careful to say that the cougars sighted in this area are probably just young males passing through, seeking out new territory, some rural residents in Brookings and surrounding counties aren’t quite so sure.
The prairies of eastern South Dakota supported a healthy cougar population before homesteaders wiped the animals out more than a century ago.
Since the lions were removed from the state’s threatened species list in 2003 and a West River hunting season was established in 2005, sightings in eastern South Dakota have been more and more frequent.
One of the state’s top cougar experts, Jon Jencks of Brookings, has the same assessment as the GFP big game specialists.
The South Dakota State University professor says that most of the sightings in this area have been young, transient males.
“We had one adult killed last year (in Moody County), and that’s the only indication there could possibly be resident animals in the area,” Jencks noted. “But even that might have been an older animal that lost its territory (in the Black Hills).”
Jencks said that young animals passing through and looking for territory of their own is “very common.”
“For a resident population, we would be looking for a female with kittens,” Jencks explained.
And to date, that just hasn’t been the case. There was a confirmed sighting of a female in the Howard area several years ago, but that animal didn’t have kittens.
Jencks and his colleagues at SDSU have worked with state game officials for more than a decade studying mountain lions.
Currently, Jencks says he’s working with the North Dakota game officials on a study of lions in that state’s Badlands area, and he has two graduate students on the job in South Dakota, one researching prey selection among the Black Hills lions and another studying lion genetics.
Over the past several years, reports of lion sightings around Brookings have increased dramatically, but only a few have been confirmed by physical evidence.
Brookings Conservation officer Jeff Grendler says he’s currently investigating several county lion sightings from “about 10 days ago,” one of which occurred southwest of Volga.
Grendler says he’s been unable to contact the reporting parties, but he’ll “follow it up and see where it takes us.”
Last year a Moody County landowner shot and killed a large male lion near Nunda, and there have been multiple sightings in the Sinai area, as well as around White. One resident reported spotting a mountain lion just three miles west of Brookings.
Most of the lion reports have come from areas near the Big Sioux River or local lakes that support significant populations of deer and other wildlife.
Some information in this story was reported by the Watertown Public Opinion.
Contact Ken Curley at firstname.lastname@example.org.