By BLAKE NICHOLSON
Associated Press Writer
KILLDEER - The notion that mountain lions are encroaching on people in the Great Plains draws a chuckle from Gary Jepson, who has lived smack in the middle of cougar country most of his life.
The 66-year-old trapper and rancher says it's the hunters and outdoors enthusiasts who are intruding on the cougars' domain.
"Human activity in this lion habitat has probably increased 100 times over," he said, atop a wind-swept bluff in western North Dakota's Badlands overlooking prime cougar prowling territory.
Cougar stories in the Plains and the Midwest have become more frequent in recent years. In 2004, Illinois reported only its second confirmed cougar sighting in more than a century.
North Dakota has had its share of unusual mountain lion stories, ranging from a cougar following mountain bikers on the Maah Daah Hey Trail in southwestern North Dakota to a dead lion found frozen in the ice on Lake Sakakawea.
In the past six months, four lions have been caught in bobcat traps or snares in western North Dakota. One trapper said he had been in the business more than 20 years and had never had a lion wander into a trap.
The combination of more deer for lions to eat and more people out in the wilderness to see the cats "makes this appear like an explosion (of lions), when it really is not," Jepson said.
"I've seen signs of females and kittens 30 years ago," he said.
Jepson, who speaks softly and slowly, choosing his words carefully, knows the land well. He discovered as a boy that he could earn money trapping skunks. He would check his traps on the way to school, much to the chagrin of his schoolteacher.
Jepson, who also is an instructor at The Fur Takers of America trapper's college in northern Indiana, doesn't think twice about living in the same area as mountain lions, in the Killdeer Mountains of southwestern North Dakota. He has educated himself about cougars, knows how to keep them out of his coyote and fox traps. To him, they're just a part of nature.
"After the first one, the novelty wears off," he said, a grin warming his weathered face.
North Dakota's third mountain lion season is planned for later this year. The maximum five lions were killed during each of the first two seasons - the majority of them west of the Missouri River - and state wildlife officials said the carcasses proved western North Dakota has a breeding population of lions.
The Cougar Network, a nonprofit research group based in Concord, Mass., last year added the North Dakota Badlands to its map of known mountain lion range.
Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University and director of scientific research for The Cougar Network, said the animals have been moving east of the Rocky Mountains because of increased protection through managed hunting seasons and the population growth of prey such as deer. In North Dakota, hunters killed a record number of deer last year.
"Some people would say they shouldn't be here," Nielsen said of cougars east of the Rockies. "But they used to be here. Cougars used to be one of the most widely distributed species in the Western Hemisphere.
"Regardless of whether we want it to happen, if it's a natural event, as it seems to be, there's not much we can do to stop it," he said.
Not everyone believes lion populations are growing. The Switzerland-based World Conservation Union, a network of governments and scientists, lists the mountain lion as "near threatened."
Lynn Sadler, head of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a nonprofit conservation group, said the growing number of lion reports is easily explained.
"More and more people living, recreating and building in mountain lion habitat means more and more people see them," she said. "If we put 100 cars around the world, you'd probably never ever see one. If we put 100 cars in your front lawn you'd think the world was overrun. I think there's a good chance that's the phenomenon we're witnessing here."
Wildlife officials in South Dakota say the Black Hills is one area where the cougar population is growing. Biologists believe some of those animals might be moving into North Dakota in search of territory.
"The last 10 to 15 years, we've received more reports of mountain lions in North Dakota," said biologist Dorothy Fecske, the state Game and Fish Department's lion expert. "It's a controversial species. Our department hears viewpoints of people who want to kill every lion in North Dakota, but also those who think we should protect all of them."
There have been only three confirmed incidents of cougars killing domestic livestock in North Dakota since 2001, Fecske said. There have been no documented attacks on humans.
"It's not like we have hundreds and hundreds of cats here," Fecske said.
Biologists say it is unlikely that cougars would establish a breeding population east of the Missouri River because they would find much less cover.
"I don't think the prairie is going to be good habitat for them," said Phil Mastrangelo, state director of the federal Wildlife Services agency. "But that's the intriguing thing about wildlife. You just don't know."