Living with mountain lions
July 21, 2014
Identifying the source of an animal's injuries isn't an exact science. When an animal owner suspects a mountain lion attack, it's difficult to say for sure whether it was or it wasn't without additional physical evidence, but South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks stays as close to science as they can, said SDGFP regional supervisor Mike Kintigh.
Last week Debbie Lepp, a horse owner from east of Rapid City, S.D., called SDGFP to report a mountain lion attack on her horse. The horse had a lesion on its withers and a long gash on her hindquarters, according to Dr. Lloyd Emond, a veterinarian from Hermosa, S.D. "It either backed into something sharp, or it was a claw," he said. "We looked around and there were no signs of blood, and nothing sharp out there. By process of elimination a mountain lion would make the best sense at this point in time."
Jack Alexander, a wildlife damage specialist for SDGFP, investigated the incident and said the injuries were not consistent with a mountain lion.
Alexander, who has seen hundreds of lion attacks and kills on both wildlife and domestic animals, said there are several things he looks for when he's evaluating a claim that a mountain lion was responsible for an animal's injuries.
1. What is the animal? "I've never seen them kill a cow or a full-grown horse around here," Alexander said. "Most of the confirmed cases were ponies, donkeys, colts—nothing very large. They'll eat about anything, but as far as livestock it's goats, sheep, some fowl once in a while. Their primary diet is deer."
2. Is the animal alive? "Mountian lions are pretty efficient animals. Not much does get away if it's attacked by a lion. They're dead pretty quick. I've seen them kill full-grown elk, but I've only confirmed one full-grown horse that had been attacked by a lion, years ago," he said.
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3. What is the nature of the injuries? "A lion will grab and hold on with one claw, what we call a catch claw, " Alexander said. "A lot of times it's just under the skin and it looks like a three-cornered snag, in kind of an L-shape. Usually that's just under the hide—they don't get deep enough to get into the meat. When they hook that claw in, they'll just bite them up behind the ears, on top of the head, then they'll drag them down that way. You very seldom see them actually claw anything. They grab ahold and hang on, so there really aren't any claw marks on it."
Kintigh added that when there are claw marks, there are almost always at least three parallel marks.
"Usually if the cuts are horizontal and lower on the chest or shoulder, it's a wire cut. Gravity pulls the lion down, so you don't get a lot of horizontal cuts on anything," said Alexander. "The marks stay vertical as the lion is going down with the animal."
Kintigh said it's usually fairly straightforward to determine if a bite mark is made by a mountain lion. A mountain lion bite will have two puncture marks from the canine teeth, spaced at least two inches apart.
4. Where are the injuries located? "A lion isn't going to attack anything from the back. They make a living killing things and they aren't going to get injured trying to do it," Alexander said. "Very seldom are there big scratches on an animal, even on big elk. It's up around their ears and the back of their neck and the mountain lion mugs them down by the nose." The cause of death in a mountain lion attack is usually a broken neck, Alexander said.
Kintigh said they've gotten calls about bite marks on the lower legs, but in those cases they're almost always caused by a domestic dog or a coyote.
5. What do the surroundings look like? "Mountain lions are ambush animals. They have to have somewhere to hide," Alexander said. "They're pretty efficient on the ground, and it doesn't take much to hide one. We sometimes get a report that a mountain lion was chasing horses, but there really isn't any running. They don't have the stamina for that. It's a pretty short chase for anything they catch."
Kintigh said they do their best to investigate every claim of a threat or attack by wildlife. "We are very good at responding to lions. We've demonstrated this time and time again. If we show up and say 'yes, it was a lion' we take action that has been very conclusive. We will track down the lion and kill it. We've done it many, many times. We had a calf up by Newell that we confirmed was killed by a lion. We set up and after a few days we removed a lion. I will not shirk duties if a lion is involved, but I'm going to look for all possible sources, not just focus on one," Kintigh said. "We look for physical evidence-tracks, hair, claw marks, scat. We have pursued a hunch, but it has to be a strong hunch. There has to be something there to justify spending state money. We're not going to protect a lion that's causing harm to livestock or that's putting people at risk by trying to live in town."
Kintigh and Alexander say that somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of the calls they get about mountain lions are confirmed attacks or sightings, but the number of calls goes up when there is a report in the media or on social media, even if it isn't confirmed. "We chase a lot of shadows," Kintigh said.
Kintigh said that the number of reports has gone down significantly since the implementation of the mountain lion hunting season in 2005 and the reduction in the population.
Alexander said they have removed approximately 95 percent of the lions they've pursued. Typically the removal is lethal. "We've tried relocating them, but we don't have anywhere to relocate them to," Kintigh said. A landowner near Custer, S.D., requested that the lion he trapped in a live trap be relocated, so they moved it about 20 miles away to a remote location. Within four days it was back, killing his geese, Kintigh said. "We can't go across state lines with lions, and if you're a landowner you won't want us to relocate a problem lion to your area, so we eliminate them."
Kintigh said livestock owners should be aware that they are within their rights to kill a mountain lion that is threatening their livestock. "If a livestock owner is out checking their livestock and they see a lion in there with their livestock, or close, they can shoot it. If everything is on the up-and-up they will not be prosecuted. They should shoot the lion, leave it lay right where it falls and call us immediately. We'll come out and look at it, and if we say it was justified, we're going to stand in support of the landowner with the pubic and with the media. We've had that happen several times."
Kintigh said that in those cases, the landowner can't keep the lion. "If they're killing it without a license, they're legally justified, but they're not allowed to keep it."