By RICHARD HINTON
More pieces of North Dakota's mountain lion puzzle are falling into place, but the big picture remains far from clear.
Necropsies on the two lions harvested last month showed the predators were healthy, but answers about why both were killed far away from the Badlands, commonly considered cat country, were fewer.
"The harvest of these two animals supports what we know. We have no evidence of breeding animals outside of the Badlands," said Dorothy Fecske, the furbearer biologist for the NorthDakota Game and Fish Department, who did the necropsies Friday at the NDGFDlaboratory.
A female, whose age Fecske estimated as between 3 and 4 years, was killed Oct. 18 near Lansford, almost due north of Minot. A 1Â½- to 2Â½-year-old male was killed Oct 28 near Washburn.
All of the cougars taken during the state's first experimental season last year and the first lion this year were killed within a 60-mile radius of Grassy Butte in western North Dakota.
Young males typically leave the area where they were born and seek out new territory, and the young male killed near Washburn was the right age to be searching out new territory, Fecske said.
"And a small number of females take off from where they were born, but it's not common," she said of the female killed near Lansford. "It could easily be a freak occurrence. Whether she was born in the area or a transient, we just don't know. Had she had young, it would have been an indication she had settled in the area. But this one hadn't had young."
In conjunction with this second experimental mountain lion season, Fecske plans to do mountain lion track surveys in the Badlands next month.
The work will help document the cats' distribution in the Badlands and try to put a number on how many family groups live in the Badlands.
"Having that in conjunction with the season will provide good information on the cats here," she explained.
The necropsies showed both animals had plenty of fat reserves.
"In animals, fat is good," she said.
Fecske and Colin Penner, who assisted on the necropsies, collected muscle samples that will go to a lab in Montana.
"Eventually, we will get information on the genetic health of the population," she explained.
The female, which was flushed from a clump of cattails after meeting up with a pheasant hunter's bird dog, recently had eaten either a beaver or a muskrat.
A recent lion study found that solitary cats were more likely to eat small prey, and lions with kittens are more likely to eat deer. Although uncommon, muskrats and beavers have been documented as a food sources for cats.
Where the male cougar came from or what it was doing on the east side of the Missouri River also is a mystery. A pheasant hunter shot it.
"It could have come from South Dakota or Montana. We don't know," she said.
The male's stomach contents revealed it had eaten a deer, Fecske said.
Blood samples from both animals will be tested for diseases.
"We are working in cooperation with USDA Wildlife Services," Fecske said.
Both animals carried a few porcupine quills, "suggesting they had fed on porcupines.
"Deer are the main prey, but smaller animals can be important, as we are seeing in North Dakota," she said.
North Dakota's second experimental mountain lion season opened in September and will run until March 11 or until a fifth cat is killed.
The first two cats in last year's season were killed by deer hunters Nov. 16 and 17, and this year, three lions had been harvested by the end of October.
"People may be more aware that lions are running around, but it's too early to say," Fecske said.
What's not too early to say is that two more pieces have been fitted in what may be a neverending puzzle.
(Reach outdoor writer Richard Hinton at 701-250-8256 or richard.hinton@;bismarcktribune.com.)