RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — A national mountain lion protection organization is outraged that South Dakota hunters shot three young lions last week and had their kills deemed legal by the state.

The killing of the 3-month-old, 4-month-old and 5-month-old lions "was an inappropriate harvest," said Penny Maldonado, managing director of the Wyoming-based Cougar Fund nonprofit.

"It's tragic that someone would interpret that animal as a trophy," she told the Rapid City Journal.

It's a misdemeanor in South Dakota for hunters to kill lion kittens that still have spots, or those that travel in pairs or groups. However, the spotted coat that indicates youth can disappear at various times, and wildlife officials must use their own judgment to determine if the law was broken, said John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department.

Wildlife officers and biologists who review each mountain lion kill quiz the hunter about the distance of the shot and the available lighting to determine if the hunter should have known a mountain lion was too young, Kanta said.

"If they say 'I shot this at 20 yards and the sun was shining on it,' they'd be looking at a fine," he said.

No fines were issued to the hunters who killed the young lions last week, after a lab examination of the animals turned up only faint spotting, Kanta said.

Maldonado said she thinks more education and animal identification training is needed in South Dakota.

"The responsibility that goes with hunting is to know what you're shooting," she said.


Information from: Rapid City Journal,www.rapidcityjournal.com