Published April 22, 2011, 02:52 PM

Wagner man takes 130-pound mountain lion, but fined for kill

The first time Chuck Zacharias saw a mountain lion, it was running right at him. “Pretty exhilarating,” said Zacharias, a rural Wagner resident. “I wouldn’t recommend it. They are a lot bigger than I thought they’d be.” But Zacharias was prepared, since he had been hunting the lion with two friends on Dec. 17. He aimed his .243-caliber rifle and fired a pair of shots, striking the animal in the foot and a front shoulder.

By: Tom Lawrence, Northland Outdoors

WAGNER — The first time Chuck Zacharias saw a mountain lion, it was running right at him.

“Pretty exhilarating,” said Zacharias, a rural Wagner resident. “I wouldn’t recommend it. They are a lot bigger than I thought they’d be.”

But Zacharias was prepared, since he had been hunting the lion with two friends on Dec. 17. He aimed his .243-caliber rifle and fired a pair of shots, striking the animal in the foot and a front shoulder.

The lion ran off, but Zacharias and his buddies followed a blood trail, finding it in a woodpile a quarter-mile away. Three blasts from a shotgun finished off the wounded lion — but it was the start of legal trouble that ended with Zacharias pleading guilty to a misdemeanor offense.

Seeing a mountain lion in eastern South Dakota was once an extremely rare event. While they once moved freely through the entire state, bounties and unregulated hunting from 1899 to 1966 reduced their numbers considerably.

Mountain lions are also known as cougars, pumas, panthers or catamounts.

South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Communications Manager Chuck Schlueter said the department estimates there are 250 mountain lions in the state, although many hunters and outdoorsmen claim the number is far higher.

Almost all the lions in South Dakota reside in and around the Black Hills, but some have been spotted in Rapid City, in southwest South Dakota and, increasingly, in East River.

Karen Archambeau, vice chairman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said she often spots lions while driving around the Marty and Greenwood area. Lion cubs pop up on roads, she said, and several people report seeing lions.

They are returning to their ancient grounds, at least in small numbers, according to the GF&P and eyewitnesses who have encountered lions. Schlueter said there’s no doubt lions are present in eastern South Dakota.

“We get several reports of lions passing through,” he said. “It does happen.”

But he said sometimes, the reports are unconfirmed or the “mountain lion” ends up being a dog, coyote or something else.

But he said lions do wander through and some may reside in the area, finding plenty of game to feed on.

GF&P Conservation Officer Supervisor Dale Gates said lions are rare but not unheard of in East River.

“We’ve had a number of incidents. They do occur in the area,” Gates said. ‘They’re not a common sight.”

He said the lions can be dangerous.

“There is a potential for damage anytime you are in the vicinity of a mountain lion,” Gates said.

That’s why Zacharias, 39, said he was hunting the 130-pound male lion that was living near his home by the Missouri River. He has three young daughters, one of whom joins him in hunting deer near their home.

He ended up killing the lion and posed for photos with the lion carcass, before he was cited for hunting on land he didn’t own or rent. A South Dakotan can kill a lion on his land year-round, but the hunter must control the property where he takes the lion.

Zacharias did not own nor lease the land where the cougar was shot. He shot it two weeks before the statewide season opened.

Zacharias was originally cited for hunting in a closed season, violating conditions of his license and being accompanied by a non-licensee, but those charged were dismissed.

On April 12, Zacharias’ lawyer, David Reinschmidt, of Sioux City, Iowa, entered a guilty plea in Circuit Court in Lake Andes to entering or refusing to leave property after notice.

Zacharias received a $200 fine, was ordered to pay $66 in court costs and was given a 30-day jail sentence. The jail time was suspended, and Zacharias did not lose his hunting privileges.

He said he felt he had the right to hunt the lion because he had contacted GF&P in advance, had obtained a lion tag and started the hunt on his own land.

Zacharias had spotted the lion’s tracks on Dec. 14 while hunting for deer and discovered a freshly killed deer that the lion had hidden under branches and leaves. He then obtained a license, even meeting with GF&P Conservation Officer Brent Nye when there was a minor problem in accessing the tag online.

Zacharias went out with his friends on Dec. 17 — two weeks before the season opened — and was in a deer stand while his buddies walked through the area. The lion, a male, jumped up and raced toward the stand, and Zacharias fired the shots that led to the final pursuit.

When he took the lion to a veterinarian in Wagner on Dec. 18, Nye was notified.

“I didn’t think there was a problem with it,” Zacharias said. “H—-, I grew up hunting on that land.”

He even rents land from the man who owns the land where the big cat was taken, he said.

In a GF&P report, Nye said Zacharias originally said he leased the land where the lion was shot but later admitted he did not and apologized for the deception.

Zacharias said he asked Nye if he would have been charged had he fudged the location where he first shot the lion and claimed it was on land he leased. Zacharias said the conservation officer said he would not have been charged.

“And that’s what really kind of chaps me,” Zacharias said.

But he said since he didn’t lose his hunting privileges, he accepted the plea deal his lawyer was able to reach. He was also hoping to get the lion skull back.

GF&P’s Gates said that’s not going to happen.

He said the lion carcass may be used for biological tests or for other reasons but when GF&P is done with it, it will be disposed of in an undisclosed manner.

Gates said while he had followed the case and seen photos of the lion, he didn’t care to offer comments. The matter is now closed, he said, although lion hunting will remain a fact of life in the state for the foreseeable future.

In an effort to reduce mountain lion numbers, a statewide lion season was launched in 2005. It started on Jan. 1 this year and was to last through March 31 or until 45 total lions or 30 females were harvested.

The season ended Feb. 21, with 47 animals taken — 26 females and 21 males. Three were taken on the final day, explaining why the total was higher than the limit.

There was also a three-month season in Custer State Park, with a five-lion limit. The season ended on March 31 with the harvest of two lions, one male, one female.

All the lions that were killed during both seasons were taken in five West River counties: Pennington, Lawrence, Meade, Custer and Fall River.

Before, during and after the season, a landowner may hunt on their own land without obtaining a tag, he said.

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