Sunday, March 04, 2007

Montana high school student on the lookout for cougars

Central High students take science fair project out of classroom, into nature

Of The Gazette Staff

When it comes to science, Darin Mydland and Turner Daines would rather spend even a windy, cold day studying outside than inside at Central High.

And that's a good thing, said their teacher Deb Wines, because that's where science comes to life.

The boys are researching mountain lion activity in the Billings area for a science fair project that has sent them into the hills surrounding the city. They're hoping to find physical evidence of mountain lions living in the Billings area by gathering hair samples from active lions.

"Science is a verb, it's not a bunch of facts in a book," Wines said. "So these guys are living it and they're seeing how exciting it is to do science. It's totally different than when you're studying and taking tests in school."
Mydland and Daines, both 17, are in advanced-placement biology at Central. Ten students in the class are working on science fair projects for the upcoming Billings Clinic Research Center Science Expo.

Many of the students chose projects where most of the work is being done in a lab, but Mydland and Daines wanted more adventure.

During the past few weeks the two have been setting hair traps, which are made of wool mats bristled with barbed nails and secured to trees. With the traps covered in a scent lure, Mydland and Daines are hoping mountain lions will be attracted and, like a house cat, rub against the mats, leaving a few hairs behind.

"We hear about them (mountain lions) around here, but this will give us proof," Daines said, squinting into the sun at the Pictograph Caves State Park, where the students set three hair traps last week after school.

To draw the big cats to the hair traps, Mydland and Daines are hanging discarded compact discs on nearby tree branches. Because mountain lions are sight hunters and naturally curious, the boys are betting the movement of the shiny CDs will draw them close enough to detect the scent.

The boys set hair traps on the Exxon Mobile wildlife management area, at Chief Plenty Coups State Park, Pictograph Cave State Park, Emerald Hills, Four Dances Park, Alkali Creek, Powwow Park, the airport area and two sites west of town: one in Phipps Park and one on the railroad right-of-way near the park.

Custer National Forest Wildlife Biologist Tom Whitford provided the scent lure and the hair traps, which were left over from a lynx study he worked on in the Little Belt Mountains several years ago. The lure was developed specifically for the lynx study, but Whitford said the hair traps attracted mountain lions, bobcats and the occasional bear.

To test the lure, Mydland and Daines took several vials of the stinky liquid to the Beartooth Nature Center in Red Lodge to try it on the captive mountain lions there. All the animals at the center came from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks after the agency determined they could not be released into the wild.

The lure was dripped in several places in the lion cages by a handler at the center. Scent lures have been given to the captive cats before, but not the one the boys planned to use for their project.

"They definitely saw some interest in it, so that's a good sign," Daines said. "A wild cat might react more because they've never smelled it before. It's new to them."

The bobcat at the center, named Garfield, also made a beeline to the backpack where the boys kept the scent. They gathered hair samples of mountain lion and bobcat so they could tell the difference.

Whitford also helped the boys gain access to the sites and offered advice on where to set the traps. Each site was documented with photos and a global positioning satellite device. Game wardens from the local Fish, Wildlife and Parks office have gotten numerous reports of mountain lions in the Billings area, Whitford said. But few have been confirmed, and often the sightings are called in after the cat has moved on.

Mydland said he's not surprised that mountain lions are so near the city limits. Deer, the cats' primary food source, are a common sight on lawns and golf courses in Billings and are even more plentiful on the outskirts of town.

"In a sense, we're invading their home, so we have got to be aware that as their food source comes into Billings looking for its own food, the cats will follow," Mydland said. "So it can be a public safety issue - it's not now - but it's a good thing to look at just in case."

Mydland and Daines plan to leave the hair traps out for about three weeks and check them every couple of days. They're not sure what they'll find, but they're confident they'll have collected samples from at least a few locations by the time they present their results at the regional science fair.

"This study that these guys are doing will help confirm areas around Billings where we think there are lions or where they've had calls of lions," Witford said, adding that their research may provide a basis for further study by Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Contact Laura Tode at or 657-1392

Published on Saturday, March 03, 2007.
Last modified on 3/3/2007 at 12:48 am local/20-mountainlion_z.txt

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