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Mountain lions in decline, North Dakota’s trending toward the western part of the state

WILLISTON -- The elusive mountain lions that once ranged over most of North Dakota appear to be in population decline. For the past 10 years the North Dakota Game and and Fish Department has been collecting data on the small populations throughou...

WILLISTON - The elusive mountain lions that once ranged over most of North Dakota appear to be in population decline.

For the past 10 years the North Dakota Game and and Fish Department has been collecting data on the small populations throughout the state - though it hasn’t been without its difficulties.

“They’re very shy and secretive,” said Williston Wildlife Resource Management Leader Kurt Luttschwager. “It’s not easy to pinpoint their numbers.”

Researchers found most of the population resides in western North Dakota where the habitat is most suitable for the large cats. Areas such as the Badlands, the Missouri River valleys, and Killdeer Mountain regions comprise most of the mountain lion’s territory.

“We’ve found the breeding populations are in the extreme Northern Badlands,” said furbearer biologist Stephanie Tucker. “Watford City is really as far North as they go but, by and large, the majority of our verifications come from the northern Badlands.”

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Tucker said the difficulty in tracking population of a nocturnal creature is the vastness of their territories. She said the females may have a territory that ranges 40 square miles and a males will claim 80 square miles which “is the equivalent of a needle in a haystack.”

In 2005, Tucker said ND Game and Fish opened a hunting season on mountain lions so they could get their hands on some of the animals and gather comprehensive data.

They paired that data with other animals they were able to live capture and get tracker collars on. Through baiting, trail camera footage, and foot snares, they can effectively capture a mountain lion and gather information.

By reconstructing the population numbers by backdating the animals, they found hound hunting was driving the mortality rate of the mountain lions.

“I have no doubt the effectiveness of hound hunting,” Tucker said. “It has the potential to do a lot of damage to the population.”

Tucker said she doesn’t want to see the population grow to where it could drive a risk to farmer’s livestock, but rather level off where it can be sustained and allow for some recreational hunting.

Their findings she said is a good thing because the cause for the population decline is controllable.

“If it were by vehicle collisions, for example, we couldn’t control that, but we can adjust the hunting season,” Tucker said.

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The department is considering changing the quota based off of the declining population numbers. They hope to see the numbers level off but haven’t committed to any changes at this time.

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