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Humans skittish as cougars creep east of Rockies

June 03, 2007|Blake Nicholson | Associated Press

KILLDEER, N.D. — The notion that mountain lions are encroaching on people in the Great Plains draws a chuckle from Gary Jepson, who has lived in the middle of cougar country most of his life.

The 66-year-old trapper and rancher says it's the hunters and outdoors enthusiasts who are intruding on the cougars' domain.

"Human activity in this lion habitat has probably increased 100 times over," he said, atop a wind-swept bluff overlooking prime cougar prowling territory in western North Dakota's Badlands.

Cougar stories in the Plains and the Midwest have become more frequent in recent years. In 2004, Illinois reported only its second confirmed cougar sighting in more than a century.

North Dakota has had its share of unusual mountain lion stories, including one about a cougar following mountain bikers on the Maah Daah Hey Trail in southwestern North Dakota and a dead lion found frozen in the ice on Lake Sakakawea.

In the last six months, four lions have been caught in bobcat traps or snares in western North Dakota.

The combination of more deer for lions to eat and more people out in the wilderness to see the cats "makes this appear like an explosion [of lions], when it really is not," Jepson said.

Jepson knows the land well. He discovered as a boy that he could earn money trapping skunks, checking his traps on the way to school, much to the chagrin of his schoolteacher.

Jepson, who also is an instructor at The Fur Takers of America trapper's college in northern Indiana, doesn't think twice about living in the same area as mountain lions, in North Dakota's Killdeer Mountains. He has educated himself about cougars, knows how to keep them out of his coyote and fox traps. To him, they're just a part of nature.

The Cougar Network, a nonprofit research group based in Concord, Mass., last year added the North Dakota Badlands to its map of known mountain lion range.

Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University and director of scientific research for The Cougar Network, said the animals had been moving east of the Rocky Mountains because of increased protection through managed hunting seasons and the population growth of prey such as deer.

"Some people would say they shouldn't be here," east of the Rockies, Nielsen said. "But they used to be here. Cougars used to be one of the most widely distributed species in the Western Hemisphere."

Not everyone believes lion populations are growing. The Switzerland-based World Conservation Union, a network of governments and scientists, lists the mountain lion as "near threatened."

Lynn Sadler, head of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a nonprofit conservation group, said the growing number of lion reports was easily explained.

"More and more people living, recreating and building in mountain lion habitat means more and more people see them," she said. "If we put 100 cars around the world, you'd probably never ever see one. If we put 100 cars in your front lawn you'd think the world was overrun. I think there's a good chance that's the phenomenon we're witnessing here."

Wildlife officials in South Dakota say the Black Hills is one area where the cougar population is growing. Biologists believe some of those animals are in search of territory and might be moving into North Dakota, where a breeding population has been recorded in the west.

"The last 10 to 15 years, we've received more reports of mountain lions in North Dakota," said biologist Dorothy Fecske, the state Game and Fish Department's lion expert. "It's a controversial species. Our department hears viewpoints of people who want to kill every lion in North Dakota, but also those who think we should protect all of them."

Only three incidents of cougars killing domestic livestock in North Dakota were confirmed since 2001, Fecske said. There have been no documented attacks on humans.

Biologists say it is unlikely that cougars would establish a breeding population east of the Missouri River because they would find much less cover.

"I don't think the prairie is going to be good habitat for them," said Phil Mastrangelo, state director of the federal Wildlife Services agency. "But that's the intriguing thing about wildlife. You just don't know."

Jepson, whose trap lines cover hundreds of miles in rugged wilderness, has seen only three lions in his lifetime -- the first one 50 years ago and the last one about 20 years ago. But he sees their tracks regularly and knows people who have seen lions or had run-ins with them.

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