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Hunters bag few cats in special cougar season

January 26, 2010 at 02:27 PM

Associated Press Writer

NEW TOWN, N.D. (AP) - Despite a rise in cougar sightings on the Fort Berthold Reservation, hunters have had limited success killing the cats since a special hunting season was launched three years ago, a wildlife official said.

Hunters killed two of the reclusive mountain lions on the reservation in December, the only ones since the season began in September, said Fred Poitra, game and fish director for Three Affiliated Tribes.

The mountain lion season was started in 2007 after reports of a cougar trailing two people for a time, and another incident where a horse a horse was attacked. Poitra said cougar sightings have increased since then at the million-acre reservation in west-central North Dakota.

“They are definitely migrating here but from where, we don’t know,” Poitra said. “They travel great distances.”

This month, people reported seeing a female cougar and her kittens eating a deer carcass near a home in New Town, which is on th e reservation. The cougars appeared to have been feasting on the kill for days, he said. But professional hunters using dogs lost the cougars’ tracks and scent once the cats left the city.

In the first cougar hunting season, a young female lion was killed illegally on the reservation, after the season had closed. Poitra said one cougar was caught in a trap last year. Another cougar was found frozen in Lake Sakakawea two years ago, he said. The quota of five has never been met.

The reservation has issued about 100 licenses this season to non-tribal members, who have come from across the country to hunt the cougars, Poitra said. While state law says only North Dakota residents may hunt mountain lions, tribes can establish their own hunting regulations on their land.

Non-tribal members from North Dakota killed the two cougars in December, Poitra said, while out-of state hunters have not had success yet. The tribal season runs through March, or sooner if the qu ota is met.

Statewide, biologists have recorded 53 cougar deaths since 2004, including those on tribal lands, Game and Fish Department biologist Stephanie Tucker said. Of those, she said, 32 were killed by hunters, nine were caught in traps intended for other animals, five were killed to protect property or humans, four were killed illegally and three were found dead.

In western North Dakota, the state’s fifth mountain lion hunting season closed last month when the limit of eight animals was reached. The quota for that area has varied between five and eight, and has been reached each season, Tucker said. In the rest of the state there is no limit and the season is open to licensed state residents through March 31.

Most of the cougars statewide have been killed west of the Missouri River. Tucker said many cougars are transients from other states but western North Dakota now has a breeding population of lions.

“We are producing our own now,” she said.

Sightings were rare until just a few years ago. Now, she said, “a mountain lion has the potential to turn up anywhere in the state.”

But that should not be cause for alarm, Tucker said.

“You have a much better chance of getting attacked by your neighbor’s dog than being attacked by a mountain lion,” she said.

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