By KIM FUNDINGSLAND, Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
In August 2006, the nationally recognized Cougar Network announced that it was, for the first time, including the North Dakota Badlands region into its “big picture” map of the known mountain lion range in the United States. The decision was made based on North Dakota Game and Fish Department data confirming that breeding mountain lions have recolonized that area of the state.
The Cougar Network is a nonprofit research organization whose board of directors includes some of the most-experienced research biologists in the United States. According to the Network’s mission statement, “.....we are especially interested in the phenomenon of expanding cougar populations into their former habitat.”
For the past 100 years, the known mountain lion range in the United States has been west of the prairie states. In recent years, however, biologists differ as to the reasons why mountain lions have been making a fairly rapid comeback. Many knowledgeable mountain lion researchers believe that recolonization of the lions’ former range is well under way.
The evidence shows that a dozen or more states previously thought to be “mountain lion-free” have had confirmed sightings in the past few years. It’s known that the population of mountain lions in the West has been increasing since about 1970, but the visible expansion of territory has occurred in just the past few years and it appears that there is no end in sight. In addition to numerous confirmed sightings in the Great Plains states where the big cats were previously thought to have been eradicated, there’s been unconfirmed sightings in other states as well. Some as far away as the East Coast.
In late 2003, near the Kansas-Missouri border, a mountain lion was captured on film by a trail camera. It was the first confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Kansas since 1904. Earlier this year, a state game warden in Oklahoma killed a lion that was attacking livestock. It was believed to be the first confirmed case involving a lion kill in that state in recorded history.
Much like North Dakota, Nebraska has experienced a marked increase in lion sightings in the past few years. Last month in the Cornhusker state, where there is no season on mountain lions, a wildlife officer shot and killed a lion within the city limits of Scottsbluff as it crept close to the high school and to within a half-block of a day-care center. Other recent episodes in Nebraska cities include police shooting a lion in St. Paul, a young male lion being captured in Omaha and another one shot within the city limits of South Sioux City.
South Dakota’s Black Hills has long had a population of mountain lions. Many of the lions showing up in other states are known to have come from that area. To help combat the problem, South Dakota opened up its first mountain lion season in 2005. A total of 13 lions were harvested.
In addition to North Dakota, Nebraska and Oklahoma officials believe they now have resident populations of mountain lions. There is also further evidence of the species’ effort to recolonize some of its historic North American territory.
“That certainly seems to be the case,” says Harley Shaw, a director with the Cougar Network. Shaw spent 48 years in wildlife management in the cougar country of Arizona, including 27 years as a research biologist studying mountain lions.
“The Black Hills population is the best example of re-establishing in recent years. There’s more sightings in Nebraska and throughout the Western Plains states. There certainly seems to be plenty of evidence.”
Theories abound on why the big cats have begun to set up new territories. Some say an increased deer population in the Plains states is the reason. Others say man has moved into too many mountain lion havens and the lions have been forced to seek new areas.
“I really don’t know why they’ve been expanding their range,” says Shaw. “I’m certainly puzzled over it.”
Some biologists believe the overall population of lions is reaching a historic high, despite an increase in hunting seasons and a dramatic increase in the number of lions being harvested. According to Smithsonian magazine, hunters in 10 Western states killed 931 mountain lions in 1982. By the early 2000s the number topped 3,000.
In 1991, a female lion that entered a barn near Golva, a small town in the southwestern part of the state along the Montana border, was shot and killed. According to Dorothy Fecske, furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the last confirmed mountain lion kill in North Dakota prior to that was in 1902.
However, it must be pointed out that record keeping of such events is far better today than it was 100 years ago. Still, mountain lions in North Dakota have been an extremely rare sight for more than 100 years. It was only in recent years that many who spend time in the North Dakota outdoors became aware that lion sightings were on the increase.
By 2004, the reports of mountain lion sightings coming in to the Game and Fish Department have increased dramatically. The department received 58 reports that year. That compares to fewer than 100 during the previous 40 years or more, and many of those were dismissed as cases of mistaken identity or as unconfirmed.
In 2004, Dean Hildebrand, then the director of the state’s Game and Fish Department, went public on the subject of mountain lions following the shooting of one said to be sneaking up behind a bowhunter near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and a dangerous incident involving a lion and two bikers on the Maah Daay Hey Trail.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that even without official data to back it up, mountain lions were becoming much more common in North Dakota than they had been in the previous century. In response, Hildebrand put his stamp of approval on an experimental mountain lion season in 2005, the first-ever in North Dakota.
During the 2005 season, a quota of five lions was harvested, three males and two females. All were taken in what is considered North Dakota primary mountain lion habitat surrounding the small Badlands town of Grassy Butte. Three of the lions were shot in McKenzie County and one each in Dunn and Billings County. They ranged in age and size from a 6-month-old female weighing 39 pounds to a 5-year-old, 140- pound male.
The 2006 mountain lion hunting season has already provided a few surprises, and further evidence that the lions are frequenting areas outside of the Badlands. While one lion this season was taken in an area where breeding lions are known to reside, McKenzie County, two others were taken outside of the state’s identified primary lion habitat— one in Renville County and one in McLean County.
The state’s lion hunting season was designed to gather biological data from harvested lions. A secondary objective was to help keep the lion population in check in the livestock-rich ranching area of the Badlands. However, with only two more lions to be killed before the 2006 seasonal quota of five is reached, it’s possible that the final two will be taken outside of the Badlands. That may create somewhat of a management dilemma for the Game and Fish Department, which has received public input from both ends of the spectrum — those who want all lions killed and those who don’t want to see any of them harmed.
“The way you manage wildlife is obviously somewhere in between,” said Randy Kreil, Game and Fish Department wildlife division chief. “The public seems to be comfortable with the direction we’re headed with these seasons and what we’re learning from them. No matter what species, hunting seasons are an adaptive process. You learn as you go. What we’re learning now is that people are harvesting lions in places where they’re not expected to be taken on a regular basis.”
While the bulk of the state’s population of lions will likely remain anchored in the central Badlands area, it’s becoming apparent that other areas of the state can expect their share of sightings. Lions often use river basins as natural travel corridors, meaning almost any drainage could become a chosen route for lions seeking new territory. In fact, since 2004, lion sightings have been either verified or reported in 40 of the state’s 53 counties.
When A Lion Is A Lion
There has been much discussion regarding the difference between lion sightings and “confirmed” sightings. Landowners and others who have reported mountain lions have expressed frustration when Game and Fish Department officials can’t confirm a sighting. That was the case at Lansford in 2005 when rancher Ron Undlin reported seeing a lion standing over a dead calf. The Game and Fish Department investigated, but did not confirm what Undlin had seen.
It wasn’t until Kent Ferguson of Mohall encountered a lion at close range about a month ago during a pheasant hunt, killing a 104-pound female with a shotgun, that the Lansford lion was considered confirmed. Other sightings in the Lansford region and elsewhere have also fallen into the category of “unconfirmed”.
Greg Link, assistant wildlife division chief, Game and Fish Department, puts it this way.
“It’s not that we don’t believe it,” said Link, “It’s just that we can’t say for sure that it’s a lion. With evidence, we’ll say it.”
“It’s just like a tornado sighting,” explained Greg Gullickson, department outreach biologist. “We need biological data. However, verified or not, the sightings have increased significantly.”
Others say they have seen lions but have been reluctant to call in a report out of fear of being ridiculed due to a lack of evidence, such as photographs or tracks. That may be creating a gap in critical information flow to the Game and Fish Department, which is seeking to learn as much as possible about mountain lions within the state’s borders.
“Just because there’s no evidence, that doesn’t mean that we disregard the report,” said Kreil. “It all goes into our database, even the probable sightings. We don’t want people to think we are not keeping track of that information. It’s valuable information.”
On The Prowl
Many predators, such as fox and coyotes, are seen quite often. The mountain lion is much different, preferring to rest by day and move by night. As a deadly, efficient hunter, the mountain lion is the largest carnivore in North America and at the top of the food chain. Lions move with great stealth and are seldom seen for more than a few seconds. Sometimes the big cats move hundreds of miles, much of it through inhabited areas, virtually undetected.
In June 2004, the longest migration of a collared mountain lion was documented by South Dakota State University researchers. A lion fitted with a tracking collar in the Black Hills moved into Wyoming and then to Oklahoma, a straight-line distance of 667 miles.
A mountain lion killed in February 2006, near Lewistown, Mont., was also wearing a tracking collar. The lion had been released in the Black Hills three years earlier and traveled the 450 miles to the Lewistown area. Another South Dakota collared lion ended up in northwestern Minnesota after passing through the eastern portion of North Dakota.
A female lion led Utah State University researchers on a similar trek in late 2005. The lady lion climbed a 10,000-foot summit, ventured into Wyoming, returned to Utah and then journeyed to Colorado where she was shot by a hunter in February 2006. She had traveled 830 miles.
Two other GPS-equipped Utah lions proved just how stealthy a lion can be and how little fear they have of man, at least during the nighttime hours. One of the lions picked up a roadkill deer and dragged it to the Bingham city cemetery. She returned to that location undetected by anyone except those electronically tracking her for 12 straight nights. A male lion fitted with GPS traveled through nearly three miles of city streets under the cover of darkness before emerging outside the city limits.
“I don’t really think they have much fear of man,” surmised Shaw. “But they usually avoid contact or hide. They are very cryptic. Still, I’ve not seen any evidence they are terribly frightened of man. What I didn’t expect to develop was all the reports of mountain lions in towns.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in Rapid City, S.D., where five mountain lions have been discovered within the city limits so far this year. One of them, a 100-pound male, had to be euthanized after perching itself in a tree across the street from Canyon Lake Elementary School.
North Dakota has yet to experience a mountain lion attack against a human. But with the lion population on the increase, the likelihood of a bloody encounter may be increasing proportionately.
“People that haven’t been around them are inclined to be much more anxious and concerned,” Shaw said. “Mountain lions tend not to attack humans. If they really wanted to, we’d have so many more attacks. They are so good at hunting and most people are so oblivious. I don’t think they trigger on human form, but I also don’t know why when they do.”
Even in areas where mountain lions are concentrated, such as in California where the lion population is estimated to be 5000 to 6000, attacks are rare. In the United States and Canada the reported rate of attacks, defined as contact between a lion and its victim, since 1991 has been six per year. When attacks do occur, they are often fought off. However, they can also be very deadly.
The following incidents were taken from a listing compiled by Californians Tom Chester and Linda Lewis, two authors attempting to record all mountain lions attacks in the United States.
Examples of recorded human attacks:
• 1991: Scott Lancaster, 18, killed while jogging near his high school in Idaho Springs, Colo. The lion dragged the 130-pound boy 200 yards uphill before killing him.
• 1996: A woman was killed defending her 6-year-old son from a lion in British Columbia. The lion had jumped from a bush and knocked the boy off his horse.
• 1998: A 6-year-old boy was attacked while hiking with a large group near Missoula, Mont. An adult managed to pull the lion off the boy, who survived with scratches and puncture wounds.
• 2000: A 4-year-old girl was attacked while her parents were setting up a tent nearby. The lion dragged her 15 yards before being scared off. The girl survived, despite the back of her skull being crushed and having deep puncture wounds in her torso.
• 2001: A 30-year-old cross-county skier was killed by a mountain lion in Banff National Park, Canada.
• 2004: A 35-year-old mountain bike racer was killed in Orange County, Calif. Evidence showed he may have been fixing his bike when he was attacked. The same lion attacked and seriously injured another biker later that day.
A more complete list of mountain lion attacks and other mountain lion information can be seen at
Mountain lion hunting seasons
Sept. 1, 2006-March 11, 2007
Season will close once five lions have been harvested
Kittens and females accompanied by kittens may not be taken
No hunting with dogs allowed until Jan. 1, 2007
(first season was held in 2005)
Nov. 1-Dec. 31, 2006
Season quota of 25 lions
Season will end once eight female lions have been harvested
(first season was held in 2005)
Fall season (no dogs) — Oct. 22-Nov. 26
Winter season (dogs allowed) — Dec. 1, 2006-April 14, 2007
*Season dates & quotas vary by district
No mountain lion season