A male mountain lion collared for a study in northeastern Montana's C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in February 2011 was shot by a hunter in December about 230 air miles away in North Dakota.
Unfortunately, the collar and all of the data it contained dropped off before the lion was killed. So what route the lion took to cross the Yellowstone River, Interstate 94 and amble into the southwestern corner of North Dakota — and how long it took to make the trip — may remain a mystery unless the collar is found.
The collar was scheduled to drop off in August. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff tracks the collars via a VHF radio signal. Since the agency didn't know the cat's whereabouts until months after the collar had dropped, the battery had either weakened or failed making retrieval impossible.
“We had a pilot and plane look hard for it,” said Randy Matchett, a wildlife biologist for the CMR Refuge.
Mountain lions are known to wander, especially young males seeking to establish their own territory. The farthest a lion ever reportedly traveled was 1,500 miles. It was a South Dakota mountain lion that was struck and killed by a car in Connecticut.
The roaming lion happened to wander into another study area, the prairie grasslands country that includes the Little Missouri River Breaks. South Dakota State University graduate student Dave Wilckens, 24, has been trapping and collaring mountain lions in the region since last October.
“The main objective of my project is looking at the feeding habits and adult mortality,” he said.
Unlike the USFWS project which uses dogs to track lions and collar them, Wilckens is using leg hold traps and foot snares to capture lions, sedate them, gather data and collar them. He's also using GPS collars which provide live updates to his computer showing the cat's location once a day. That way, when he sees the signals concentrating in an area, he'll hike in to see if the cat has a kill and what type of animal it was.
So far he's found the lions feeding on everything from coyotes, beavers and porcupines to deer, raccoons and turkeys.
“I've also found that they do scavenge more than most people think,” he said.
Wilckens has collared nine mountain lions so far for his study and lost two to hunters and two to illegal takings. He'd like to collar another 10 to provide the wealth of data that makes for a good study sample.
“It's lots of field work, lots of hiking,” he said. “As you can imagine, they're not close to roads, either.”
At this time of the year, he's in the field almost every day. Although he ran a trap line in his home state of New York when he was younger, he had never trapped a full grown mountain lion until he began this study.
Adult male cougars can weight up to 165 pounds and measure 7.5-feet long, including their tail.
Usually, the lions are pretty calm in the traps, Wilckens said.
“They know they're not going anywhere at that point.”
The cats are sedated with a tranquilizer gun before being handled.
When the hunter shot the Montana mountain lion in North Dakota, he called Wilckens to report the cat's ear tag number. Wilckens was confused since the number didn't match any of his cats.
“That was a pretty big surprise,” he said.
Looking back through his camera trap photos, he found one of his cameras had captured a photo of the CMR lion, which must have been in North Dakota for close to a year.
Wilckens said if he had known sooner that the Montana mountain lion was in his study area, he could have looked for the collar with a better chance of finding it. Now the collar is likely unrecoverable.
“It's probably out there somewhere, but the chance of a hunter stumbling over it is pretty slim,” he said.