Rumored 'mountain lion' tracks turn out to be made by a canine

Rumors of a mountain lion sighting along the Turtle River west of Grand Forks took a new twist recently when pictures of some tracks showed up on a popular social networking site.

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Rumors of a mountain lion sighting along the Turtle River west of Grand Forks took a new twist recently when pictures of some tracks showed up on a popular social networking site.

But if the mere mention of mountain lions sends you into a tizzy, you can breathe easier: The tracks in question really were those of a large dog or other critter of the canine variety.

They weren't -- and I repeat, weren't -- made by a mountain lion.

The person who photographed the tracks sent me a jpeg early this week asking if I had any information on the supposed mountain lion sightings (I didn't). He didn't put much stock in the stories, he said, until he and his family were on a trail at Turtle River State Park recently and came across the large tracks.

I'm no expert at identifying tracks, and so I forwarded the photo to several people who are, including Steve Loch, a wildlife biologist from Babbitt, Minn., who has studied cougars for more than 15 years.


He was quick to reply:

"That track was not made by a lion (or any other species of cat)," Loch said. "The prints are canid, likely dog."

Stephanie Tucker, furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck who's probably had more experience with mountain lions in the state in recent years than anyone, was equally conclusive in her assessment.

"The tracks in this picture are definitely from a canine, not a mountain lion," she wrote in an e-mail. Almost weekly, Tucker said she responds to pictures of large tracks that turn out to be those of a dog.

According to Tucker, the tracks from Turtle River State Park had several characteristics common to canines rather than felines. The heel pads on the tracks in the photo, for example, had a single lobe on the leading edge -- mountain lions have a large, "m"-shaped palm pad with two lobes toward the front of the pad and three lobes toward the back of the pad -- and the toes were splayed outward.

The tracks also had clearly visible claw marks, which wouldn't appear in cat tracks. Unlike dogs, cats have retractable claws.

Tina Harding, naturalist at Turtle River State Park, weighed in with even more evidence. Mountain lion tracks, she said, "are asymmetrical with a leading toe, which allows left and right tracks to be differentiated.

"Large, domestic dog tracks are frequently mistaken for mountain lion tracks," Harding wrote. "Dog tracks show claws, are generally symmetrical and do not have a prominent lead toe. Dogs also have a triangular-shaped palm pad, which is much smaller in relationship to the toes."


That's not to say mountain lions don't occasionally wander through eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. Three confirmed reports immediately come to mind.

In December 2002, a Grand Forks County deputy recorded the image of a mountain lion on the squad car's video camera while the cat crossed in front of the vehicle on Interstate 29 near Thompson, N.D. I saw a photo taken from the video image, and that was one very large mountain lion.

Then, in December 2004, wildlife officials confirmed a mountain lion near Arvilla, N.D. The lion had been fitted with a radio collar in South Dakota, and the radio signal provided clear evidence of the cat's whereabouts. The mountain lion didn't hang around Grand Forks County very long before crossing the Red River into northwestern Minnesota, where a Department of Natural Resources pilot picked up its signal in a remote portion of the Roseau River Wildlife Management Area.

The cat crossed the border into Manitoba that winter, and that was the last I heard of its whereabouts.

Farther east, a motorist last September struck and killed a mountain lion on the south side of Bemidji. DNR officials said the cat was a sub-adult male 2 to 2½ years old and weighed about 110 pounds.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that mountain lions are elusive animals and rarely seen. That's part of the fascination, of course. But knowing the difference between cat tracks and dog tracks can help keep rumors in check, and in the case of mountain lions, that's definitely a good thing.

These tracks definitely weren't made by a mountain lion, but as one person responding to the photo joked:

"Now that there are tracks in the area, I'm betting someone will 'see' it one of these days."


I'll take that bet.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .

Mountain lion vs. dog track

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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