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Hunter shoots mountain lion after successful deer hunt in east-central North Dakota

While mountain lions have been spotted across North Dakota, the core of the population inhabits the Badlands of western North Dakota. Game and Fish first offered a hunting season in 2005.

John Bollingberg mountain lion.jpg
John Bollingberg with the mountain lion he shot near his home Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022, near Hamberg, North Dakota, in Wells County.
Contributed/John Bollingberg
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WELLS COUNTY, N.D. — John Bollingberg had already filled his North Dakota buck tag Sunday, Nov. 13, when he got on the track of a mountain lion.

The previous evening, the big cat had been spotted about 100 yards from the mailbox of his home near Hamberg, North Dakota. He didn’t give much credence to the report, at first, but after shooting his buck, Bollingberg found the lion’s tracks in the snow and began his pursuit.

The tracks disappeared at the site of an old farmstead about a half-mile away.

“I saw the tracks go underneath an old grain truck so I looked around to see if she happened to be laying there, and she wasn’t, so I kept following them,” Bollingberg said. “They went to this old granary that was kind of in the middle of the yard by itself. As soon as I saw that they went under there, I took a few steps back because I was thinking, ‘Well jeepers, she might be right here at my feet.’ ”

North Dakota’s mountain lion population peaked in 2011 or 2012 at a range somewhere between 100 and 275, based on results from computer modeling. In response, Game and Fish upped the harvest quota for cats in Zone 1 to drive the number down and slow the increase. Current models suggest a population in the range of 50 to 60 cats.

He started walking around the granary and didn’t see any tracks coming out.

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“I was like, ‘Holy crap, there’s a pretty good chance she’s going to be underneath there,’ ” Bollingberg said.

He called a friend to come with a gun for backup, just in case the big cat decided to come running out from under the granary.

“He told me, ‘there’s no way she’s still under there — she snuck out somehow,’ ” Bollingberg recalled. “I was like, ‘Well, I guess we’ll find out.’ ”

When Bollingberg laid down on the ground to look under the granary, he could hear the cat rustling around under the floor.

“I got up probably faster than I’ve ever gotten up before,” he said. “And then I was like, ‘Well, you’re wrong, she’s under there.’ And he laughed and said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw it.’ ”

By that time, it was about 3:30 p.m., and there would only be about an hour and a half of legal shooting hours remaining. The friend had to leave, Bollingberg says, but his girlfriend came with the pickup.

He wasn’t quite sure how to proceed, but Bollingberg says he eventually decided to go back to the spot where he’d laid down the first time, this time farther away, just to be safe.

“I could see the white of her nose and I could see her face staring at me,” Bollingberg said. “She was about 50 yards away at that point.”

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He could see all the way through the bottom of the granary so he knew he could take a clean, safe shot.

Using a .22-250 caliber rifle, Bollingberg fired a shot at the cat, which bolted from the shed and made a run through the bushes and under an old grain truck about 200 yards away.

That’s where the hunt ended.

“I was talking to somebody yesterday, and he asked how long it took for my heart rate to come back down,” Bollingberg said Wednesday in a phone interview. “I said, ‘I’ll let you know when it finally does.’ ”

While mountain lions have been spotted across North Dakota, the core of the population inhabits the Badlands of western North Dakota. Game and Fish first offered a hunting season in 2005 and manages the population by dividing the state into two zones — Zone 1 in the far western part of the state and Zone 2, which covers the rest of the state.

Mountain lion zones.jpg
North Dakota mountain lion zones. Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Mountain lion season in both zones opened Sept. 2, and Bollingberg’s cat is the first to be taken in Zone 2 during the season to date.

The early season in Zone 1 closes Sunday, Nov. 20, and there is a harvest limit of eight. As of the most recent update Nov. 9, three mountain lions had been taken, according to data on the Game and Fish website. A late season in Zone 1 opens Monday, Nov. 21, and continues through March 31 unless the quota of seven — or three females — is reached.

The season in Zone 2 continues through March 31, and there is no quota.

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Hunters who shoot a mountain lion are required to contact the local game warden, nearest Game and Fish office or register the harvest online within 12 hours. Bollingberg called James Myhre, district game warden in Sheyenne, North Dakota, who came to inspect the cat and will bring it to Game and Fish in Bismarck for further testing and evaluation, which is standard procedure for all mountain lions taken in North Dakota.

The lion Bollingberg shot was a female weighing 70 to 80 pounds.

“That’s about average size for a female mountain lion,” Bollingberg said. “I’m not exactly sure how old she is. They’ll kind of figure that out when they bring her down to the lab, but I would say probably 3 to 4 years old.”

As of noon Wednesday, the mountain lion was at the taxidermist in Sheyenne, where it will be skinned for a full-body mount before Myhre takes the carcass to Bismarck.

“I’m taking donations” for the taxidermy bill, he joked.

Bollingberg says he saw a much bigger mountain lion during an elk hunting trip to Oregon, but he never expected to see one practically in his backyard.

Oddly enough, another mountain lion had been spotted the same day about 10 miles to the northeast, he says. To have two in the same year, much less the same day, would have been surprising, he says.

Generally, mountain lions in Zone 2 are transient animals seeking out new territory.

“My family’s from here, my dad grew up here, my grandpa grew up here, and we farm around this area,” Bollingberg said. “I’ve been here for quite a few years, and I’m pretty avid in the outdoors. I’ve heard of people seeing (mountain lions) but I'd never seen anything like it firsthand. I’ve never seen any (paw) prints like that.

“When you see them, it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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