Keeping an Eye on the Big Cats |

Keeping an Eye on the Big Cats

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News

Every livestock owner keeps an eye on the predators that pose a risk to his flock or herd. Although not common, mountain lions are present in both North and South Dakota, and livestock owners need to be aware of the potential risk that the big cats pose to themselves and their stock.

Stephanie Tucker, Furbearer Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDGFD), said that North Dakota has never had a mountain lion attack a human, and very few confirmed predations on livestock.

“Our mountain lion population trend is fairly stable,” she said. “We don’t make a specific estimate on our population size but we track trends.”

NDGFD data shows mountain lion numbers peaking in 2004-05 through 2011-12 with confirmed sightings peaking at fifty-seven in 2008. More recently, annual confirmed sightings of mountain lions in North Dakota range between twenty and forty per year. Twenty-seven mountain lion sightings were confirmed in North Dakota between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, indicating that the population continues to be relatively stable and is staying in the range where it’s been for the last eight years.

“Our main breeding area is in the Badlands,” Tucker said. “We are having a few more sightings reported in eastern North Dakota but most are in the Badlands and the western part of the state.”

While North Dakotans have started to see more mountain lions in the eastern part of the state these lions are most likely migrant, as the NDGFD has not found lactating females or females with kittens in other areas. Young mountain lions tend to leave the area where they were born, an instinct that helps to prevent inbreeding in a population; seeing them outside their known breeding area does not necessarily mean they are moving in to stay. Seventeen mountain lion mortalities were reported in North Dakota between July, 2018 and June 2019, including those harvested by hunters, one hit by a vehicle, and those disposed of because they were considered a threat to humans or livestock.

North Dakota’s mountain lion numbers tend to follow South Dakota’s numbers, as the cats migrating out of the Black Hills area of South Dakota often head north. The mountain lion population trends also mirror the deer population, as deer are a main staple of their diet.

“South Dakota recognizes a population in the Black Hills,” said John Kanta, SDGFP Regional Supervisor in Rapid City, SD. “Most mountain lions spotted outside this area are probably transient lions, although there may be small breeding populations in the rougher country of Pine Ridge in Nebraska and South Dakota and there are possibly a few mountain lions roaming the Slim Buttes area. They don’t have much opportunity to get well established because they can’t help but get themselves in trouble. They show themselves and people shoot them to protect their livestock.”

Forty to fifty mountain lions have been harvested in South Dakota the last few years including those shot during hunting season and cats removed by individuals because they posed a threat to humans or livestock.

Kanta said that in his roughly twenty-five years in the SDGFP he has not seen high numbers of documented mountain lion kills of livestock.

“We have not documented any kills of cows or calves,” he said. “Usually it’s sheep. Most have been owned by hobby farmers who might have five head or so, or a couple of llama’s.”

These small groups of animals penned or tethered are easy prey for mountain lions, as are dogs, cats and other pets, Kanta explained.

“It’s almost like they are unintentionally baiting them in,” he said. “Mountain lions are opportunists. They go after the easiest meal they can catch.”

The SDGFP also gets quite a few calls from horse owners suspecting mountain lions of injuring their horses. Kanta said the difference between a mountain lion’s attack and wire cuts on a horse will be obvious.

“They are ambush predators,” he said. “They wait and jump on their prey, sink their claws in and then make a bite on the animal’s neck. Their “catch claws” which are very large front dewclaws are what they hang on with.”

These claw and bite marks will be in different locations on a horse and of a different pattern than cuts and scratches caused by running into or through a barbed wire fence.

Both states allow individuals to eliminate a mountain lion that poses a threat to human life and property.

“The number one thing to do if anyone suspects they are losing stock to a mountain lion is to call the USDA Wildlife Services immediately,” Stephanie Tucker said. “We work with them to investigate livestock depredations. The sooner they get there the more accurately the situation can be assessed. While the majority of mountain lions in North Dakota don’t prey on livestock, some can get habituated to killing livestock if they get started.”

“Our state statutes provide for disposal of a mountain lion to protect one’s person and property,” John Kanta said. “If someone does shoot a mountain lion we ask them to leave it as is and call the GFP. We’ll come and get it. If someone thinks they are having a problem with a mountain lion killing their stock or injuring their horses they should get in touch with us as well so we can come investigate the situation and try to eliminate it.

“We take these situations seriously; if a mountain lion attacks livestock or horses we’re going to go after it and kill it.”

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