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December 5: Big Cats in North Dakota

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North Dakota is home to a wide variety of wildlife, with everything from the little prairie dog to the majestic bison. Very few people have seen a mountain lion, although they are known here. On this date in 1887, a mountain lion carcass was on display in Bismarck. The Bismarck Tribune noted that it was a fine specimen, suggesting it be stuffed and mounted for exhibit in the territorial museum.

While not frequently spotted, people have reported sightings of mountain lions. In 1894, people living near Sanborn reported seeing them. The night clerk for the railroad said he heard a roar and looked outside to see a mountain lion sitting on the depot platform. Other local residents said they had also seen and heard the animals and had come across their tracks. Farmers and ranchers talked of organizing hunting parties to eradicate the predators.

Signs of mountain lions have been reported even when the animals were not spotted. In 1934, the Fargo Forum noted that signs of a big cat had been seen near Stanton. Ranchers found the carcasses of dead calves along with footprints of a big cat in the snow. The ranchers offered a reward for any hunter who brought in the cat.

Big cats are scarce in the state as most of it is open prairie, which is not suitable habitat. But the western portion of North Dakota does offer the type of environment they like, and a small number of big cats make their home there.

They are active mainly at night and they prefer to avoid people, so there is a slim chance of seeing one. It is estimated that there are no more than two dozen of the big cats in the entire state. From July 2020 to June 2021, there were only fourteen verifiable sightings. Mountain lions can travel long distances and their favorite habitats are the Badlands, the Killdeer Mountain area, and the Missouri River Breaks.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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