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Lions and Bears in North Dakota?


Kirk D. Johnson

gif -- Figure of a mountain lion.
Mountain lions in North Dakota? Reported sightings are averaging more than one per year since 1990.

Originally published in:
North Dakota Outdoors
(February, 1998)

Official Publication of the
State Game and Fish Department
100 North Bismarck Expressway
Bismarck, North Dakota 58501-5095

North Dakota Bears and Lions
This resource is based on the following source:
Johnson, Kirk D.  1998.  Lions and bears in North Dakota?.  North Dakota Outdoors
This resource should be cited as:
Johnson, Kirk D.  1998.  Lions and bears in North Dakota?.  North Dakota Outdoors
     60(7)16-17.  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
     (Version 02APR98).

As a farmer in the Turtle Mountains north of Bottineau went to check on the mare in his pasture, he was shocked to see her bleeding and badly injured from deep and long scratches across her ribs and back. The farmer wondered what animal could be responsible for such wounds.

Animal Damage Control (ADC) officer Lou Huffman reached a surprising conclusion that the widely spaced clawmarks could only have been made by a mountain lion (Felis concolor). Until recently, wildlife professionals would have scoffed at such a conclusion.

According to Steve Allen, furbearer biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, wildlife officials have confirmed 20 reports of mountain lion sightings, tracks or mortalities since 1958; 11 of them in the 1990s. Allen felt that much of the Turtle Mountains was sufficiently remote and large enough to possibly harbor a small population. Larry Hagen, park manager of the 1,600-acre Lake Metigoshe State Park, recalled a report of a sighting in the park of a tan-colored cat with a long tail that left tracks later confirmed by a game warden to be those of a mountain lion.

Evidence to bolster this claim is found in studies conducted in Manitoba by Canadian wildlife biologists in the 1970s. Research indicated the possibility of up to 50 of the big cats in the forested draws and hills of southern Manitoba. It is thought that Riding Mountain National Park, 90 miles north of the Turtle Mountains in Manitoba, may harbor a small population. In 1973, a small 2-year-old male lion was killed on a farm near Stead, Manitoba, northeast of Winnipeg. Reports of the big cats continue to arrive at Manitoba's Department of Natural Resources at a rate of 10-50 annually. There have also been mountain lions reported in South Dakota.

Areas with abundant elk, white-tailed deer and mule deer are needed to sustain a resident population of mountain lions, however small. Such an area might be the Little Missouri badlands of western North Dakota. Bruce Kaye, information officer for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, mentioned that there are an average of 2-3 reports a year of mountain lion sightings, tracks, or other signs within the park.

gif -- Figure of North Dakota.
While resident populations of mountain lions or bears are not confirmed in North Dakota, the western badlands and Turtle Mountains might be hospitable for lions, while the Turtle Mountains and Pembina River Valley contain suitable bear habitat.

According to an official report dated July 22, 1997, "two individuals were observed for about 20 minutes by a party of five from a vehicle," on the side of a cliff nearly 10 miles from Medora. These may well be the same cats sighted several times around Medora itself last year. In August 1991, a small mountain lion was observed for 45 minutes lying on a ledge of the Painted Canyon in the south unit of the park by 25 excited tourists and two park employees. The official park report indicated the cat had a golden coat and long tail.

Such reports in the badlands are not confined to the park. According to a North Dakota Game and Fish Department report, in early January 1991 an 81-pound 1-year-old female lion was shot by ranchers in a barn in Golden Valley County. This was the first recorded mortality of a presumed wild mountain lion since 1902, according to Game and Fish records. In January 1987, a clawless, 75-pound female lion was killed by rancher Kelly Jorgenson north of the Little Missouri in Dunn County. Jorgenson, according to a Minot Daily News article, evidently had called in the cat while he was using a predator call. This female was almost certainly a former pet or captive.

Juvenile mountain lions 2 years old or less may be dispersing from a growing population of approximately 25-75 big cats resident in the rugged pine forests of the Black Hills and the Missouri River Breaks in South Dakota. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks personnel believe that a breeding population exists in the western part of the state. Juvenile mountain lions, young wolves and even moose may travel hundreds of miles in search of suitable habitat, prey or mates.

JPG -- Figure of a black bear.
Black bears have been sighted recently in north-eastern North Dakota.

Another seldom-seen animal may once again be seeking permanent residence in the Turtle Mountains and Pembina River Valley of northeastern North Dakota. John Schulz, wildlife resource biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, stated that a small breeding population of black bear (Ursus americanus), may exist in northeastern North Dakota. Schulz noted that in August 1997 a black bear cub and mother were reported on the North Dakota side of the Turtle Mountains. Schulz indicated that reports of sightings, sign and mortalities had increased significantly over the past six years, with more reports coming from the Pembina area than from the Turtle Mountains. The Pembina River Valley is part of a region containing rugged aspen-covered hills and shrub-fill ravines.

Within this area juvenile black bears may be dispersing into agricultural regions within the greater Red River Valley. Such may have been the case for two black bears killed in the last two years on the outskirts of the towns of Pembina and Cavalier. The Pembina bear is currently mounted and on display at "The Trading Post," a gas station in Pembina. According to Schulz, there is likely room for black bear expansion into the Pembina escarpment, and also onto aspen-covered outreach plains from ancient Lake Agassiz near the towns of Walhalla and Park River. Black bear sightings have not been reported from western North Dakota.

Mountain lions and black bears are currently protected under North Dakota law. There are no hunting seasons. Protection, cooperation with private landowners and a workable animal damage control policy may ensure that these two exciting, native species could once again recover in suitable numbers to allow limited hunting.

In the meantime, if you are fortunate enough to see these animals in the wild, be sure that what you are seeing is truly a mountain lion or black bear. Many reports cannot be verified because there is not enough good information. If you are satisfied that what you've seen is a mountain lion or black bear, carefully jot down details about the animal and its location and report it to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Kirk D. Johnson lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. This is his first contribution to North Dakota OUTDOORS.
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