Whether on a trail camera or in a tree, mountain lion sightings get people talking.

Ask anyone in North Dakota wildlife circles, and they’d likely be hard-pressed to name an animal that generates a bigger buzz than a mountain lion that makes its presence known.

“It depends on a person’s passion but mountain lions do – even for the nonhunting public – garner a lot of interest from people,” said Stephanie Tucker, furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

That definitely was the case in late March, when authorities in West Fargo shot and killed a treed mountain lion that was deemed potentially dangerous near a local park. The cat was a long way from the core of North Dakota’s mountain lion breeding range in the Badlands and Little Missouri River Breaks.

“There’s way more, say, deer hunters in North Dakota that are passionate about deer hunting and follow what’s going on with deer,” Tucker said. “But if you’re not a deer hunter, you don’t really care about deer and might not be fascinated by them.

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“Whereas, there’s just a lot of people, regardless if they’re hunters or not, that are fascinated by mountain lions.”

Stephanie Tucker, furbearer biologist, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Stephanie Tucker, furbearer biologist, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

Mountain lion update

Tucker gave an update on mountain lions in North Dakota during the Game and Fish Department’s recent spring advisory board meetings for hunters and anglers – held online because of COVID-19 – and further discussed the iconic cats this week in a telephone interview.

Bottom line, mountain lions in the core of their western North Dakota range are holding at a level that’s low but steady and acceptable both to wildlife managers and landowners, Tucker says.

“We’re not hearing a lot of concerns from ranchers or deer hunters who don’t like to share deer with mountain lions and things like that,” she said. “I definitely feel, from my perspective, that we’ve found a very comfortable situation where we’re between everybody’s expectations, and the population is sustaining itself at a healthy level at the same time.”

In his book, “The Mammals of North Dakota,” UND Professor Emeritus of Biology Robert Seabloom writes that mountain lions historically occurred across the Great Plains but never were common.

There were no early records of mountain lions in eastern North Dakota, and cats that historically inhabited North Dakota west of the Missouri River had disappeared by the early 20th century, the book states.

The population likely was so low that mountain lions in North Dakota were undetectable to most people, Tucker says.

“They were likely extirpated or close to there,” she said. “They don’t have high reproductive rates. A female only produces a litter every other year, and there’s probably only two kittens in each litter so it just takes a while for the population to build itself.”

According to “The Mammals of North Dakota,” mountain lions started gaining a foothold in the western part of the state in the 1950s. By 2005, the Game and Fish Department deemed the population high enough to offer an experimental hunting season.

Managing cats

Game and Fish manages mountain lions by dividing the state into two zones: Zone 1 in the Badlands area encompasses the core breeding range, while Zone 2 in the rest of the state is less suitable for the cats.

North Dakota Game and Fish Department
North Dakota Game and Fish Department

North Dakota’s mountain lion population peaked in 2011 or 2012 at a range somewhere between 100 and 275, based on results from computer modeling, Tucker said. In response, Game and Fish upped the harvest quota for cats in Zone 1 to drive the number down and slow the increase.

Current models suggest a population in the range of 50 to 60 cats.

“Once the population came back down, we backed off on our hunting season harvest limits a little bit, and the population has been fairly stable, with minor fluctuations up and down from year to year, since that time,” Tucker said.

Hunters shot 14 mountain lions in Zone 1 during the 2019-20 season and three cats in Zone 2. Since the inaugural season in 2005, the statewide harvest has ranged from as low as four to as many as 19 during the 2017-18 season, when a record six cats were taken in Zone 2 outside the core breeding range.

The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation also offers a season but works with Game and Fish in sharing information to manage the species, Tucker says.

North Dakota Game and Fish Department
North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Genetics study

In an effort to learn more about the high number of cats taken in Zone 2 during the 2017-18 season, Game and Fish contracted with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont., to conduct genetic testing on mountain lions killed outside their traditional range, Tucker said.

“We really got to wonder, ‘Are these mountain lions that are coming from our breeding population, or are they coming from somewhere else like the South Dakota Black Hills or one of the mountain lion populations in Montana?’” she said.

Results from that testing showed about 50% of the dispersing cats came from South Dakota, 25% from Montana and the remaining 25% from North Dakota.

The numbers don’t account for cats that either pass through the state safely or travel through undetected.

“This is just the ones that are taken by hunters or hit by an automobile or something along those lines,” she said.

Mountain lions are well known for traveling long distances, Tucker said, especially young males, a trait believed to be nature’s way of preventing inbreeding within a population.

“Mountain lions really have turned up in all corners of the state,” she said.

GPS research

Results from the genetic testing have helped the department build on the knowledge base it gathered on mountain lions during a GPS tracking survey that began in 2011 and wrapped up in 2017.

As part of the survey, a partnership with South Dakota State University, Game and Fish staff and SDSU graduate students trapped and fitted 14 mountain lions with GPS collars, while 22 cats received ear tags.

The collars were programmed to provide tracking information every three to six days, Tucker said. None of the cats collared in the survey permanently dispersed from the Badlands, although a couple of cats did venture off before returning, she said.

A mountain lion in western North Dakota wears a GPS tracking collar as part of a study the Game and Fish Department conducted beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2017. As part of a study with South Dakota State University, 14 mountain lions were fitted with GPS collars and another 22 with ear tags. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
A mountain lion in western North Dakota wears a GPS tracking collar as part of a study the Game and Fish Department conducted beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2017. As part of a study with South Dakota State University, 14 mountain lions were fitted with GPS collars and another 22 with ear tags. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

Results from the GPS collar survey helped the department fine-tune the modeling it uses to determine population trends for mountain lions in the state. Other factors used to determine population trends include the age of cats taken by hunters, who are required to submit the carcasses to Game and Fish, and genetic analysis.

“Mountain lions don’t lend themselves to a lot of our traditional survey techniques,” Tucker said. “We can’t do a roadside survey and expect to see a mountain lion. We can’t get up in an airplane and do an aerial survey and expect to see a mountain lion. They’re nocturnal, they exist in low densities on the landscape, they have large home ranges and so we really rely on a population model to tell us what the population trends are.”

In other words, it’s not about specific numbers.

“I can’t stress that enough,” Tucker said. “People always ask me, ‘How many mountain lions do you think we have in North Dakota?’ And I say I don’t know.”

What is known is that mountain lions conceivably can wander through any part of North Dakota at any given time. As a ballpark estimate, Tucker says Game and Fish gets 25 to 30 reports of mountain lion sightings every year in North Dakota, of which maybe one-half to one-third can be verified.

“I’m always fascinated, too,” she said. “One of the reasons we know that mountain lions are in eastern North Dakota is because of reports from the public – like trail camera photos or somebody snaps a picture of one – and it was there and gone.”

Tucker encourages the public to report sightings using the department’s online furbearer reporting form at https://gf.nd.gov/hunting/furbearers/rare-furbearer-observation.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.