By RICHARD HINTON
Questions continue to outnumber answers after the close of North Dakota's second experimental mountain lion season almost a month ago.
The charismatic cats, the state's largest resident carnivores, continue to pique the public's curiosity, spawning fervent opinions pro and con about the presence of cougars in North Dakota.
Witness two recent letters - both anonymous - sent to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department:
"Discontinue the Cougar Hunting and Slaughter," begins one.
"Allowing only five cougars to be shot is not only asinine, but dangerous to the NorthDakota public," reads part of the other.
Mountain lions have roared back from near extermination in many western states, including North Dakota, and as the prime lion habitat is filled up in those states, cougars spill out in search of new habitat.
Sit down with NDGFD's mountain lion think tank - biologists monitoring the lions' presence in the state - about midway through the recent gun deer season, and their answers are based in science, derived from what is known or proven.
In other words, best guesses aren't among the options.
"When the department makes a statement, it has to be more than a gut hunch. The public expects a higher degree of professionalism from Game and Fish," Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief, said as he, furbearer biologist Dorothy Fecske and assistant wildlife chief Greg Link sat down for a wide-ranging group interview about mountain lions in North Dakota.
With all of the cats in the first experimental season killed in or near core mountain lion habitat, the five-cat quota tied a neat bow around the state's mountain lion picture. This second season unraveled the once tidy picture.
Kills branching out
All five cats in 2005 were shot within a 60-mile radius of Grassy Butte in western North Dakota, prime Badlands lion habitat that contains concealment and stalking cover, rocky and hilly terrain, a food source such as deer and water.
Four of the cats this year were killed outside of that Badlands core lion habitat, and three lions were killed east of the Missouri River. Neither Lansford, Washburn, Dawson nor New Salem have suitable lion habitat, according to NDGFD's 2005 mountain lion report to the Legislative Council. And two of this year's lions were killed by pheasant hunters, who stumbled upon the cats. A third was hit by a vehicle. The last was killed inside a culvert very close to New Salem.
But what's unknown is how long the lion was in the area. One day, a week, a month, or was it longer?
The second season lasted only 70 days, with the last cat killed on Nov. 9. In 2005, the first cat wasn't killed until the season's 76th day, and the fifth cat was killed Jan. 15.
Those differences are helping to raise the public's anxiety bar, even among some big-city dwellers. The far-flung locations and the short season spark conjecture that the state's mountain lion population has exploded, that lions are expanding their range. Rumors swirled, including many so ludicrous and logic-defying that they are not worth repeating.
"They have been taken and seen in central North Dakota, but we can't say that they are staying or living there," said Link.
Whether those cats wandered over from the Badlands, up from South Dakota's Black Hills, over from Montana or even Wyoming also is unknown. DNA samples from all of the animals have been taken and will be compared to mountain lion DNA kept by state game and fish agencies in neighboring states. The comparison could help determine if the cats killed in North Dakota are related to lions in adjacent states.
"We have no evidence of a breeding population (of lions) outside of the Badlands," said Fecske. "At this point, there is no known mountain lion breeding population in agriculture or grassland habitat" in any state with a mountain lion population.
That two of these cats this season were breeding-age females far from core cougar country prompts even more speculation.
Female lions typically don't leave the vicinity of where they were born unless the core habitat reaches capacity. What's unknown is whether those females came from South Dakota, Montana, Canada or North Dakota.
That the lion killed near New Salem was a 3- to 4-year-old male also isn't surprising, Fecske said.
Neither male or female cougars breed until they have established their own territory, she explained. And establishing a territory involves roaming the countryside until the cat comes upon suitable habitat. Such cats are called transients, Fecske added.
"That some lions were more in the east, where people didn't expect them, raises concerns, or fears, depending on where they are. It's something we knew before. We have had sightings in the east before. Some of the situations are probably because of the proximity. That concerns people the most," said Link.
"It's part of the learning process. We're learning more about mountain lions all of the time," Kreil added. "Like every season we manage, it's an adaptive process. You make adjustments as you go to meet what you learn."
Remember that wandering young male lion in the spring of last year? Fitted with a radio collar in the Black Hills months earlier, the cat's signal was picked up later near Grand Forks as it made its way into northern Minnesota and probably Canada.
Although about 2 percent of North Dakota, mostly in the Badlands and Missouri River breaks, holds suitable lion habitat, NDGFD doesn't know if it's filled.
"A winter tracking survey will give us some insight," Kreil said.
The survey, to be done this month or next, will help document the distribution of Badlands mountain lions, Fecske said. Routes will be set up in the north, central and southern regions of the Badlands through areas containing high-quality mountain lion habitat. Once snow falls, roads will be searched for fresh tracks of mountain lions. Locations will be recorded for all tracks found.
A 1Â½-year-old male mountain lion recently was caught in a trap north of Medora. Biologists tranquilized the cat and fitted it with a radio collar to allow them to track it. The cat is North Dakota's first to be fitted with a radio collar. The collar was jury-rigged to fit the cat from a pronghorn collar and will allow big-game biologists to keep up with the cat's movements when they fly pronghorn tracking surveys, which happen every 10 to 14 days.
"We should get some valuable information on its movement. The information we get will supplement all we are learning through the season and the snow track survey and other sources of data," Kreil said the day after the collared cat was released.
Mountain lion sighting reports also will be on questionnaires going to a sampling of the state's legions of deer hunters. Last year, 459 hunters, who spent 6,134 hours carrying rifles and optics in pursuit of deer on opening weekend, reported nine sightings.
In all of their hours spent hunting in North Dakota's Badlands, neither Kreil nor Link has seen a lion in the wild.
"And I was looking hard last weekend, really hard," said Link.
Kreil said he hunted in the Badlands last year near where two lions had been taken, walking 1Â½ miles in the dark to get to where he would start hunting.
Would he do it next year if he had a tag?
"Yes, I would. I think people have to realize their chances of being injured are far greater driving down I-94 to get to the Badlands than being attacked by a mountain lion once they get there," he said. "There are a lot of things in life that are dangerous."
In three years, or 900 days, of doing field work researching mountain lions in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Fecske saw two cats and a glimpse of what may have been a third, "outside of the study animals that we were chasing."
She saw a family group crossing the road during a search for lion tracks.
"We didn't even believe it. 'What's that?' 'Deer? No,'" she said.
For the most part, lions are secretive, mostly nocturnal and adept at keeping out of sight. Often a lion sighting is confirmed, and the animal is never seen again. That was the case with a lion videotaped and verified inCayuga, in southeastern North Dakota. There have been no subsequent reports.
Wary about attacks
There have been no documented reports of mountain lion attacks on people in either North Dakota or South Dakota.
An aggressive lion did confront two mountain bicyclists on the Maah Daah Hey Trail in the summer of 2005. In response to the aggressive behavior, NDGFD hired a houndsman to track down and kill the cougar. He was unable to pick up its trail.
"We would have taken out the lion in New Salem, but there was a hunter there," Kreil said. "One of the key things is it would be taken out for human concerns. Any lion that seems to be getting comfortable around people will need to be killed."
"If we don't know the intent of the animal, we will err on the side of caution," added Link.
People may protect themselves or their property from lions, and game wardens will investigate the circumstances, Kreil said.
Biologists' science-based answers may be why some North Dakotans perceive that NDGFD doesn't take their reports of mountain lion signs or sightings seriously enough.
Whether it's tracks, photos, videos or a sighting, the evidence will be evaluated and ultimately grouped into one of four categories: verified, probable and unverified, improbable and unverified, or unfounded.
But first, NDGFD must be told, preferably sooner rather than later.
"Sometimes people aren't contacting us. We would like to follow up if we get chance to, but if we don't get the reports ... ," Kreil said.
Even tracks can be inconclusive, especially e-mailed photos of a single track, Fecske added.
"It's always helpful with tracks if there are photos of more than one track. If the characteristics aren't clear, sometimes I can see them in another track. I often e-mail them back and say, 'I can't call it. Do you have any more pictures?'" she said.
Photos of tracks sometimes are sent to other state game and fish agencies for second opinions on determining what animal made the track.
And often, even credible individuals mistake dogs, foxes, coyotes and, sometimes, house cats for mountain lions.
"When they show us what they have, we go over it with them and they go 'Oh, come to think about it,'" said Link.
NDGFD also is collecting photographs of horses that have been documented as having been attacked by mountain lions from neighboring state game and fish agencies.
"We get a lot of reports of horses with scratches on them that, in the end, aren't consistent with how mountain lion attacks occur," said Kreil.
The photos of confirmed attacks will be used for comparison and to show the public what a lion attack looks like.
"If somebody came across a deer or a calf that had the hind quarters chewed out of it, that's most likely not a mountain lion. If you come across a deer or a calf that the lion went into under the rib cage and into the internal organs, then cached it under some branches or leaves, you can say with some degree of certainty that it was a lion," Kreil added.
Scratches on livestock often are blamed on mountain lions.
"You have to realize that if a mountain lion takes on a big animal, there will be more than scratches," said Link.
Changes are likely
There will be a third experimental mountain lion season in 2007. And changes, most likely, will happen. What form any changes may take is being looked at.
"All aspects are up for review and open to discussion," said Kreil.
Possible changes could include increasing the quota to more than five cougars, looking differently at different parts of the state, a split season that would allow houndsmen to hunt lions after there is snow on the ground and even the season's dates.
And lions will be a topic at many of the advisory board meetings going on now and likely on the agenda for the spring advisory board meetings as well.
"We're hearing every day what people think," said Fecske.
"People hear a lot of stuff ...," said Link.
" ... from informed and uninformed people," added Kreil.
With the gun deer season ongoing during the interview, Kreil was amazed about the volume of mountain lion calls NDGFD receives.
"With 70,000 people hunting deer, we still get more calls about the closed mountain lion season than we do deer," he said.
But people remain curious, frightened of or sympathetic to mountain lions, guaranteeing that lion issues will take up a lot of time at NDGFD "from the director to the game wardens and professional wildlife staff to the outreach biologists," Kreil said.
With the return of deer hunters' questionnaires, results of DNA tests, the track survey and the movements of the collared cougar, biologists expect to expand their mountain lion database.
As important is what already has been gleaned.
"The information we learned is incredible," Kreil said. "It was done economically, and we've given people the opportunity to take a lion or two."
NDGFD also realizes that some parts of the state hold a "nervous public."
"North Dakotans have to adjust to the fact that large carnivores are living here," Kreil said. "It's been well over a century since they existed here in any numbers."
(Reach outdoor writer Richard Hinton at 701-250-8256 or richard.hinton@;bismarcktribune.com.)