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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Mountain lions deserve our respect and admiration

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, a mountain lion appeared just 35 yards downslope on my side of the creek, slowly walking on a game trail. Looking forward, the big cat’s stride was deliberate, as it, too, was hunting.

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Despite countless unverified reports of mountain lion sightings each year in Minnesota, a number of confirmed sightings are indeed recorded.
Photo by Eric Kilby / Flickr
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I’ve been hunting in the West for a long time: Montana, Colorado, Nebraska, and both North and South Dakota. In all of these states, mountain lions are common.

And yet in 22 years of hunting various game in western states, mostly deer and elk, I’ve never observed a mountain lion.

Until now.

Just days ago while elk hunting with my recurve bow in the Colorado Rocky Mountain’s Routt National Forest and about to cross a shallow creek from the forested slope I had been hunting on, I stopped to listen and watch.

As I leaned on my trekking pole for support on the steep slope in a small clearing, I had a full view of the creek bottom below me at only a few dozen yards away.

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Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, a mountain lion appeared just 35 yards downslope on my side of the creek slowly walking on a game trail. Looking forward, the big cat’s stride was deliberate, as it, too, was hunting.

Surprisingly, it quickly turned its head and locked eyes with my own. The intensity of its dark eyes was startling, but so was its behavior: the mountain lion didn’t run away.

Holding the bow and trekking pole with my right hand, I awkwardly removed my smartphone from a pocket on my left pants leg.

Never having taken a left-handed photo with the device, I managed to somehow thumb to the camera icon on the screen. Gingerly gripping the phone, I slowly raised my arm to capture the cat in the frame, which was still there, still staring directly at me, and not moving a muscle.

I took the photo, slowly lowered my arm, and slipped the phone back into my pants pocket. Alarmingly, the cat then positioned its body slightly toward me and crouched. “What are you up to, cat?” I thought.

Concerned about its intentions, I looked down at the ground for a rock or stick to possibly throw if needed. I then looked back up at the cat, but it was gone. Vanished. Not a trace, not a sound. I had no idea even what direction it disappeared to.

Collecting myself, I was suddenly overcome by the emotions of the experience. I had just observed my first wild mountain lion — an extremely close encounter at that. I felt very fortunate and grateful, albeit somewhat shaken by it, too.

At home in Minnesota, we know that mountain lions exist here, though in extremely low numbers.

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Despite countless unverified reports of mountain lion sightings each year in Minnesota, a number of confirmed sightings are indeed recorded.

What is not known, however, is if a breeding population of mountain lions exists in Minnesota. Contrary to popular opinion, there has never been a documented case of a breeding population of mountain lions in the state, much less verified sightings of female mountain lions with kittens. This is not to say that it couldn’t happen, it just hasn’t been verified and recorded.

It has been shown that the majority of mountain lions that occasionally wander into parts of Minnesota are mostly 2 1/2-year-old males from the Black Hills or Badlands.

Mountain lions are the second largest wild native cat in the Western Hemisphere. The jaguar, rarely observed north of Mexico, is larger. Male mountain lions can be as long as 9 feet in total length, which includes their 3-foot-long tail, and can attain a shoulder height of 30 inches. Mature males typically weigh from 150 to 180 pounds while females are somewhat smaller.

Deer are the primary prey of mountain lions. An adult lion will kill one deer every seven to 10 days and consume around 50 deer per year. Like most wild cats, with the exception of African lions, mountain lions hunt in solitude and do not form prides. The only time mountain lions hunt together is when a female takes her kittens along to teach them the skills they need in order to survive on their own.

While mountain lions do appear in Minnesota from time to time, the species will probably always be a rare occurrence despite abundant habitat and prey. Even where mountain lions are abundant throughout their principal range, few people ever actually observe them.

Indeed, the sleek and secretive mountain lion inhabits the Canadian Yukon all the way to South America. Powerful and beautiful, they deserve our respect and admiration as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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