Mountain Lions in the State of North Dakota

North Dakota is one of the states most recently recolonized by mountain lions. But despite having only a couple dozen cats in the state, North Dakota established a hunting season in 2005 and has raised the quota several times since. In the 2019-2020 season, that state put a harvest limit of 15 lions in part of the state and no harvest limit in the remainder of the state. State game biologists estimate that North Dakota has an average lion population of about 80, which makes these hunt quotas unsustainable.

Click on the tabs below to learn more about mountain lion policy, laws, alerts, and more!

History

Native Peoples

As an apex predator of the Great Plains, mountain lions were an important part of Native American culture in North Dakota, revered as an intelligent and mighty hunter. The Plains Indians coexisted with mountain lions and lions were hunted only to provide resources for clothing and ceremonial purposes. Mountain lions also brought rich substance to local myths and legends with their great hunting skill and prowess.

Mountain lions inhabited the badlands and Missouri Breaks areas of North Dakota as well as the riparian and wooded areas throughout the state. They may have roamed the grasslands, depending on whether the landscape provided suitable cover for their ambush hunting style, pursuing their preferred prey, elk and deer. Mountain lions would not have had the strength and size to hunt bison, who numbered in the millions at that time and would have been fierce and potentially deadly opponents.

The tribes who lived on the territory of what is now North Dakota included the Arapaho, Arikara, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Crow, Dakota Sioux, Hidatsa and Mandan. The Chippewa have a Cougar Clan whose totem is called ‘Misibizhiw.’ These people generally lived a nomadic hunting lifestyle, following the vast bison herds that roamed the Great Plains at that time.

From the 1830s to the 1880s a large U.S. federal territory on the Great Plains was set aside as ‘Indian Territory’ in an attempt to clear land for white settlers as they moved westward. The Great Plains tribes depended absolutely upon the bison for food, shelter and clothing and in the 1870s the U.S. government perpetrated a giant slaughter of the northern buffalo herds in an attempt to destroy the Great Plains tribal lifestyle once and for all.

Fur Trading Period

Native fur bearers have always played an important role in human development and survival. Pelts, teeth and claws have been used by Native Americans for centuries for clothing, decoration, rugs, shelter, tools, and ceremonial uses among other things. Before European settlement of North Dakota, fur bearers were abundant.

While the beaver was the most trapped furbearer, all species were fair game, including mountain lions, trapped mainly as a ‘nuisance’ animal though skins could bring a moderate price . A ‘Newhouse 14’ trap was big enough to trap mountain lions and also wolves. The trap was heavy and nineteen inches long, enough cold gripping steel to hold a lion until the trapper could check his lines and kill the animal.

The abundance of furbearer species was what opened up North Dakota to the fur trade. Almost every settler who came to North Dakota in the early years of its development came because of fur trapping and trading interests. One of the main objectives of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804-05 was to gather information on furbearers – species, abundance and distribution. (North Dakota Furtakers Educational Manual) Throughout the fur trade era, beaver pelts were in the highest demand in the Eastern U.S., Europe and China.

By the 1850s, the fur trade era was largely over. At the peak of the fur trade industry in the U.S., profits usually ran more than 100%. A few men became rich and the Native Americans upon whom the fur trade largely depended lost their way of life to the westward settlement of incoming Europeans.

The trapping industry across the United States reinforced a culture where all furbearers, including mountain lions, were treated simply as commodities with no thought to their sentience, to their role and value in ecosystems, or to the effects of over-trapping.

Unregulated Hunting

Unlike many other western and inter-mountain states, North Dakota never had a bounty on mountain lions. However, prior to 1991, mountain lions were unprotected and could be killed legally in any numbers at any time. Because the killing of mountain lions was unregulated and there were no bounty rolls that would have kept pay-out records on lion bodies, there is no way to know for certain how many mountain lions were actually killed while the state was being settled. However, population estimates would likely be in the thousands as lions historically lived, hunted and raised their young throughout the state at that time. In 1991, mountain lions were classified as furbearers with a closed season. Policy was created that prohibited the killing of a mountain lion outside a regulated hunting season unless a human life is threatened, or a lion is known to be killing livestock.

Sport and Recreational Hunting

North Dakota’s first mountain lion hunting season opened on September 2, 2005. The season closed early, five months later, on January 15, 2006 when a 4 to 6-month-old, 39-lb. female was reported killed in McKenzie County. The mortality total for this first hunt was 5 mountain lions.

In 2007, North Dakota expanded the sport hunting season for mountain lions to two hunt zones, one of which has no restrictions on how many lions may be killed.

In 2016, the Mountain Lion Foundation, along with thousands of our members and other wildlife and conservation organizations, submitted a letter urging the Director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to enact an immediate moratorium on mountain lion hunting in that state. Based on current science, the mountain lion population in North Dakota is too small to sustainably withstand a sport hunting season.

 

Status

Historically, mountain lions inhabited most of North Dakota, though they were only abundant in the Little Missouri Badlands region. Though there was never a bounty on mountain lions in North Dakota, they were hunted to local extirpation. The last confirmed mountain lion harvested was in 1902 along the Missouri River south of Williston. There were only 10 reports of mountain lions in southwestern North Dakota between 1958 and 1980. After a young female was shot near Golva in 1991, the state reclassified mountain lions as a fur-bearer and provisions were also made to allow removal of individual animals for property protection and human safety concerns. Before 1991, mountain lions had no protections and could be legally killed at any time.

By the early 2000s, the number of reports confirmed by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department had increased to a level that demanded attention. The state began to recognize that there was a very small population residing in the Badlands, Missouri River Breaks, and Kildeer Mountain regions.

Despite having a population of only a couple dozen cats, the state of North Dakota implemented a limited hunting season with an initial quota of 5 cats in 2005. It was legal to kill kittens as well as adults. This quota was later raised to 21 and kitten harvest was prohibited.

In 2014 and 2016, North Dakota Game and Fish and South Dakota State University completed studies designed to generate population estimates and to find out how the population may be changing. With such proportionately large hunting quotas, it is no surprise that they found the small population of mountain lions to be declining. Researchers also discovered that this small population could fall victim to inbreeding depression without immigration from nearby populations in Montana and South Dakota. Encouragingly, the studies also found that there was minimal predation on livestock and that most harvested individuals were healthy at the time in which they were killed.

Since this study was published, the mountain lion quota was reduced from 21 to 15. Mountain lions may be legally harvested using legal firearms or archery equipment. Starting in 2017, hunters may legally use hounds as well.

Recent Sightings Outside the Main Population

  • April 8, 2017: Burleigh County, Photo/Video
  • February 12, 2017: Morton County, Sign
  • March 9,2016: Cavalier County, Photo/Video
  • September 23, 2016: McHenry County, Photo/Video
  • October 18, 2016: McHenry County, Photo/Video
  • November 21, 2016: Mercer County, Photo/Video

Habitat

Wildlife managers recognize that there is a relatively small population of mountain lions residing in the Badlands, Missouri River Breaks, and Kildeer Mountain regions.

Occasionally, there are individual mountain lions documented in other parts of the state as well. NDGFD models of habitat suitability highlight the Badlands, Missouri River Breaks, and Killdeer Mountains regions, an area comprising 6% of the total state, which is about 10,267 square kilometers, as providing suitable habitat for mountain lions. The largest number of sightings have occurred in McKenzie and Dunn counties, which have the highest proportion of suitable habitat for mountain lions.

Establishing mountain lion-friendly legislation and management practices will likely need to play a role in allowing this top carnivore to return to the great state of North Dakota. Check out our Action Tab to see what you can do to help!

Law

Species Status

Mountain lions are classified as a fur-bearing species (N.D. Cent. Code Section 20.1-01-02).

Hunting Law

North Dakota’s mountain lion hunting season for firearms and archery runs from September through March. Hound hunting is permitted, and that season runs from the end of November through March. Each hunter may take one mountain lion per season and must notify North Dakota Game and Fish Department within 12 hours of killing a mountain lion. In addition, they must present the carcass intact for analysis and tagging. The carcass is returned to the hunter, so they can keep the pelt, but the rest of the carcass becomes property of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Hunters must have a furbearer license or a combination license, in addition to a Fishing, Hunting, and Furbearer Certificate. The use of artificial lights and calls is permitted. Trapping is not permitted, neither is hunting spotted kittens.

Hunting quotas include mountain lions killed by hunters, USDA Wildlife Services, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, private landowners defending their livestock, road killed animals, incidental animals killed by traps or snares, and animals taken for human safety issues. Quotas do not include mountain lions killed on tribal lands, with the exception of mountain lions taken on the Fort Berthold Reservation (which are included in the quota).

Visit the North Dakota state website for further details about use of firearms and archery equipment and seasons for hunts.

The Legislature

The Legislative Assembly is made up from the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate may consist of 40-54 members and the House may consist of 80-108 members. Legislative members take office December 1 of even-numbered years, for example, a new assembly will be appointed in 2018. The Legislative Assembly meets in regular session the following January, for example, a new session will start January 2019.

You can find all the information about contacting senators, history, management, and scheduled events on their website.

State Regulation

You can find all the information about the code here on their website. All information regarding fur-bearing animal regulations and management can be found on the North Dakota Legislative Branch Website under their Century Codes page. Under Title 20.1 and chapter 20.1-07 you can find these regulations.

You can also access the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to find more information about hunting laws and regulations of wildlife in North Dakota.

Public Safety Law

Killing a lion outside a regulated hunting season is prohibited, unless there is a human safety risk. Mountain lions deemed to be a substantial, unpreventable threat to public safety (or property, bighorn sheep, or other species of high public interest) may be killed. North Dakota Game and Fish Department has considered relocating problem animals, but determined that this was not a suitable option.

The code (section 20.1-07-04) states that “where a lion is a repeat offender or is judged to be a substantial threat to property or public safety, it may be killed by the landowner or tenant or that person’s agent. Additionally, a lion may be dispatched by Department personnel or by Wildlife Services personnel upon approval by the Department Director or designee if a lion is judged to be a substantial threat to property, public safety, bighorn sheep or other species of high public interest. Game and Fish personnel and Wildlife Services personnel must IMMEDIATELY OBTAIN PERMISSION from one of the following: Director, Deputy Director, Wildlife Division Chief, or Assistant Wildlife Division Chief of the Game and Fish Department for authority to dispatch a mountain lion under these circumstances.”

Depredation Law

The Depredation Code reads as follows:

“20.1-07-04. Depredating fur-bearing animals – Destruction and disposition. A landowner or tenant or that person’s agent may catch or kill any wild fur-bearing animal that is committing depredations upon that person’s poultry, domestic animals, or crops, except a landowner or tenant or that person’s agent shall notify and obtain the approval of the director before catching or killing a black bear. A landowner or tenant or that person’s agent may not commercialize in, sell, or ship an animal or the pelt or any part of an animal caught or killed under this section if caught or killed during the closed season. A person catching or killing a black bear or mountain lion under this section shall report the capture or killing to the department within twenty-four hours and the entire animal must be turned over to the department.”

Poaching

Fur bearing animal regulations can be found on this website. The code reads:

“Any person violating a provision of this chapter for which a penalty is not specifically provided is guilty of a class B misdemeanor. 20.1-07-06. Unlawful possession of fur-bearers – Each violation is a distinct offense. No person may unlawfully: 1. Kill, take, attempt to take, possess, transport, accept for transportation, buy, sell, offer for sale, barter, or otherwise dispose of any fur-bearing animal or any part thereof. 2. Take or attempt to take any fur-bearer outside a regularly prescribed season or without a license or as provided in section 20.1-07-04, or violate any of this chapter. Each violation constitutes a distinct and separate offense.”

Road Mortalities

You can find information on regulations for handling and collecting roadkill here.

In order to pick up roadkill, a permit must be obtained. A call to a North Dakota Game and Fish Warden would be required for mortalities of furbearers.

 

Action

There are currently no Action Alerts for North Dakota. Be sure to check back often for action items in the state!

Map

Coming soon!

Library

North Dakota Cougar Files Sorted by Type

Scientific Research

  • Bonham, K. , 2015, In Rare Incident, Mountain Lion Hut by Vehicle in Northeastern North Dakota. Wdaz.
  • Dakota, N., Game, N. D., Dakota, N., Code, C., Early, T., Canada, S., … States, U. , 2014, 2013-2014 SMALL GAME – FURBEARER.
  • Davenport, M., Nielsen, C., & Mangun, J. , 2010, Attitudes Toward Mountain Lion Management in the Midwest: Implications for a Potentially Recolonizing Large Predator. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 15
  • Eckroth, L. , 2009, Mountain Lion Shot in Bismarck. The Bismarck Tribune.
  • Gehring, B. , 2014, Study- mountain lion population declining. The Bismarck Tribune.
  • LaRue, M. A., & Nielsen, C. K. , 2008, Modelling potential dispersal corridors for cougars in midwestern North America using least-cost path methods. Ecological Modelling, 212
  • Thompson, D. J., Fecske, D. M., Jenks, J. a., & Jarding, A. R. , 2009, Food Habits of Recolonizing Cougars in the Dakotas: Prey Obtained from Prairie and Agricultural Habitats. The American Midland Naturalist, 161
  • Wilckens, D. T., Smith, J. B., Tucker, S. A., Thompson, D. J., & Jenks, J. A. , 2016, Mountain lion
  • Wilckens, D., French, B. B., National, R., Refuge, W., & Dakota, N. , 2013, Montana lion shot 230 miles from where it was collared for study,

Agency Reports

Legal

Other

  • Associated Press, 2005 Hunters Tell of Mountain Lion Kills
  • Associated Press, 2005 Mountain Lion Season Starts Slowly
  • Associated Press, 2006 Game and Fish Department Keeping Track of Collared Cougar
  • Associated Press, 2007 Fifth Mountain Lion Killed; Season Ends in Western North Dakota
  • Associated Press, 2008 3rd Mountain Lion Season Ends; Debate Continues
  • Associated Press, 2008 Cougars Continue to Get Caught in Traps
  • Associated Press, 2008 Cougars Sighted Near New Town
  • Associated Press, 2008 First Cougar of Season Killed
  • Associated Press, 2008 First Mountain Lion of eason Killed
  • Associated Press, 2008 First Mountain Lion of North Dakota Season Killed
  • Associated Press, 2008 Mountain Lions Won’t Be Classified as Varmints
  • Associated Press, 2008 North Dakota’s 3rd Mountain Lion Season Ends
  • Associated Press, 2008 Officials Investigatin Possible Cougar Attack
  • Associated Press, 2008 Officials Say Horse Wasn’t Attacked by Cougar
  • Associated Press, 2008 Owner of Pregnant mare Believes Mountain Lion Attacked Horse
  • Associated Press, 2008 Tribe Opens Lion Hunt
  • Associated Press, 2008 Williston Bowhunter Kills Cougar
  • Associated Press, 2008 Young Mountain Lion Caught in Trap Euthanized
  • Associated Press, North Dakota Mountain Lions Wandering
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2007 Mountain Lion May Have Been North Dakota’s Eve. Bismark Tribune
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2008 Mountain Lion Licenses Proposed. Bismark Tribune
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2008 North Dakota’s 3rd Mountain Lion Season Ends. Bismark Tribune
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2008 Traps Snare, Kill Three Mountain Lions. Bismark Tribune
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2007 A Visit with North Dakota Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2007 Badlands Mountain Lion Season Over
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2007 Changes in Trapping Regulations Unlikely
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2007 Cougar Captured, Killed in Badlands
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2007 Dead Cougar Found Frozen in Lake Sakakawea Ice
  • Bismarck Tribune, 2008 Mountain Lions Get GPS Collars
  • Bismarck Tribune, Comments on Trapped Mountain Lion is Euthanized
  • Boomgarden, 2008 Pierre Report Time Flies as the Legislature Works
  • Dickson Press, 2008 Cougar’s Radio Collar Conks Out
  • Dickson Press, 2008 Editorial – Some Credible Suggestions are Given
  • Gehring, 2008 First Mountain Lion of Season Taken. Bismark Tribune
  • Gehring, 2008 Mountain Lion Reported in Mandan. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2005 Mountain Lion Allegedly Shot. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2005 Necropsies Hold No Surprises. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2005 North Dakota Mountain Lion Fitted with Radio Collar. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2006 Many Questions Persist over North Dakota Mountain Lions. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2006 Many Questions Persist Over North Dakota Mountain Lions. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2006 Mountain Lion Stays Close to North Dakota Capture Site. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2007 All Five Cougars Killed Were Females. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2007 Changes in trapping regulations unlikely. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2007 Changes Proposed for Third Mountain Lion Hunting Season. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2007 Cougar Spotted near Bismarck. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2007 Investigation Continuing in Death of Mountain Lion. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2007 Mountain Lions Spreading Across North Dakota. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2007 Outfitter Charged in Mountain Lion Case. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2007 Young Mountain Lion Found Dead in Trap. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2008 Lion Taken in Sargent County. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2008 Mountain Lion Caught in Western North Dakota. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2008 Mountain Lions Get GPS Collars. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2008 Owner, Officials Disagree on Horse Injuries. Bismark Tribune
  • Hinton, 2008 Trapped Mountain Lion is Euthanized. Bismark Tribune
  • Hyra, 2007 Police; Mountain Lion Sightings Seem Credible, Jamestown Sun
  • Inforum, 2006 Lion Still Traveling
  • Inforum, 2007 Proposed Mountain Lion Season Would Include Two Hunting Zones
  • Inforum, 2007 Two Mountain Lions Shot in North Dakota, Officials Say
  • Inforum, 2007 Unusual Cougar Incidents in North Dakota
  • KFYR , 2007 5th Mountain Lion Killed
  • KFYR , 2007 Cougars Settling in Badlands
  • KFYR , 2007 Two Mountain Lions Killed
  • KXMBTV, 2007 Proposed North Dakota Mountain Lion Season Change
  • KXMBTV, 2008 Horse Injured
  • KXMBTV, 2008 Mountain Lion
  • KXMCTV , 2007 Hunter Finds Mountain Lion Cubs
  • KXMCTV , 2007 Young Mountain Lion Trapped
  • Loznak , 2007 Experts; Cougar Population Not Increasing, USA Today
  • MacPherson, MacPherson Authorities Report First Mountain Lion Kill of the Season, Associated Press
  • MacPherson, 2005 Hunt Ends for Mountain Lion that Threatened Bikers, Associated Press
  • MacPherson, 2006 Cougar Captured, Collared for Tracking, Associated Press
  • Minot Daily News, 2007 Hunter Stumbles Across Mountain Lion Cubs
  • Minot Daily News, 2007 Lake Levels, Lions Highlight Minot Meeting
  • Minot Daily News, 2007 Lion Entombed in Ice at Four Bears
  • Minot Daily News, 2007 Mother, Daughter Spot Mountain Lion; Game & Fish Call Claim “Unfounded.”
  • Minot Daily News, 2008 Special Reservation Lion Hunt Opened
  • News , 2005 Mountain Lion Spotted Near Thompson
  • News , 2008 Coyote Hunters Killed Another Mountain Lion in North Dakota
  • News , 2008 KXMBTV 2008 Possible Mountain Lions in Bismarck
  • News , 2008 Mountain Lion
  • News , NDGFD 2007 Another Mountain Lion Caught in Western North Dakota
  • News , NDGFD 2007 Mountain Lion Caught in Snare; Later Euthanized
  • News , 2005 Guided Mountain Lion Hunt Off
  • News , ND C Feininger 2005 Mitch Feininger Letter; No Good Reason for a Cougar Hunt
  • Nicholson , 2007 Are Lions Moving East, Trapper Says It’s Humans Who are Intruding
  • Nicholson, 2007 Wildlife Officials Say Cow Likely Killed By Cougar. Bismark Tribune
  • Nicholson, 2007 Trapped Mountain Lion Killed After Unique Effort to Save It. Bismark Tribune
  • Nicholson, 2007 Trapper; It’s Humans Who are Intruding on Cougars. Bismark Tribune
  • Norman, 2007 Official Says Mountain Lion Sighting Reported Here in November Unconfirmed, Jamestown Sun
  • North Dakota Outdoors, 2007 Big Interest in Mountain Lions of North Dakota
  • Odermann , 2008 Still Learning About the Lions, Dickson Press
  • Rodebaugh , 2006 Living with Lions, Durango Herald
  • Roesler, 2007 Mountain Lion Season Should Be Left Open for Ranchers, Farm & Ranch Guide
  • Thr Forum, 2008 Emotions High Over Cougars
  • Uniter Press International , 2007 Mountain Lion Rumor Shot Down in North Dakota
  • Wetzel , 2005 North Dakota Schedules Cougar Season, Associated Press
  • Wetzel , 2005 North Dakota Schedules Mountain Lion Hunting Season, Associated Press
  • Williston Herald, 2006 Thankful to be Alive After a “Hunt of a Lifetime.”