BILLINGS — An adult female mountain lion harvested in February at the north end of central Montana’s Crazy Mountains apparently traveled there from South Dakota, where it was fitted with a radio collar last summer.
The lion was the third from a South Dakota study to make its way deep into Montana within the past two years.
Leif Holman of Melville, a freshman at Sweet Grass County High School in Big Timber, killed the big cat Feb. 21 after his father, Dave, and a friend treed it using hounds on a nearby ranch. They did not know the cougar was carrying a radio-transmitter collar until it was on the ground, Dave Holman said.
When Leif reported the harvest to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, as is required by state law, he gave the collar to FWP wildlife biologist Justin Paugh of Big Timber.
Paugh said he never had seen the collar and knew that no wildlife biologists were doing radio tracking of cougars in south central Montana. So he called regional and state officials, who could only speculate as to the source of the tracking collar.
Eventually, Paugh said, he called the collar manufacturer and learned that a transmitter with that serial number was sold for a cooperative study by South Dakota State University and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
SDSU biology student Beckie Juarez confirmed that the mountain lion was captured and fitted with a radio collar last year near Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills National Forest, 55 miles southwest of Rapid City, S.D. Biologists followed the lion for about a week before radio-tracking receivers lost the signal from the collar. The female cat weighed 76 pounds, was two or three years old and never had borne kittens, she said.
Nobody could guess what route the lion followed before it ended up 420 miles to the northwest in Sweet Grass County in Montana.
Paugh said it is not unusual for young male lions to disperse from their home ground in search of a territory they can call their own. A 420-mile trek is long for young males, he said. “For a mature female, it’s pretty amazing.”
The lion is not the first – or even the first female – to make its way from South Dakota to Montana. Last year a hunter in the Bear Paw Mountains near Havre harvested a sub-adult male mountain lion that had been collared and released in South Dakota a year ago. In January, a six-year-old female, first caught in South Dakota in 2007, was killed in the Little Belt Mountains near Monarch.
South Dakota researchers started 2013with collars on 46 lions in the Black Hills, Juarez said. This winter six have been harvested or died of non-hunting causes. Two are missing from the Black Hills for the past six months. Lions have dispersed into Wyoming and North Dakota as well as Montana.
The 15-year-old South Dakota study uses radio collars and DNA sampling in an attempt to estimate the cougar population in the Black Hills, Juarez said. It also is providing biologists with valuable data about lion population dispersion.