Charismatic megafauna.

The first time I heard that term was not in college biology classes or early in my career with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, but at a district advisory board meeting some years ago when a former Game and Fish administrator used it in reference to mountain lions.

Mountain Lion

In 2005 Game and Fish held its first mountain lion hunting season. (Photo courtesy NDGF)​

It's a term that roughly describes "a large animal that inspires fascination," and it fit mountain lions then, and it still fits today.

Mountain lions are one of those species that attract attention and interest no matter how many or few there are, or if they are hunted or not. I've never seen one in the wild, and haven't specifically tried to hunt them, even though the Game and Fish Department has held a regulated hunting season each year for the past decade. But when stories arise, I find myself genuinely interested.

That may be the case for many North Dakotans later this month as Game and Fish Department biologists are holding a series of public meetings to share the story of the state's current mountain lion population.

For much of the last 100 years that story was pretty short. North Dakota didn't have any mountain lions to speak of, with only periodic sightings, primarily in the western part of the state.

That started to change significantly in the 1990s, with more and more documented sightings and confirmed evidence of a breeding population becoming established in the in the western part of the state, primarily in the badlands area north of Interstate 94.

In 2005 Game and Fish held its first mountain lion hunting season. Since that time, through analysis of harvested animals and a major research project launched in 2011, biologists have compiled volumes of information.

"Considering what we knew about mountain lions in North Dakota prior to 2005, which was very little, the information gathered in the last decade is significant," said Jeb Williams, Game and Fish wildlife division chief. "We want to share with the public at these meetings what we've learned about managing mountain lions in North Dakota over the last 10 years."

Since the state's first mountain lion season, Game and Fish has documented the harvest of 97 animals in the badlands (Zone 1), where the majority of the state's population lives and breeds. Hunters have taken nine lions in the rest of the state (Zone 2) during that same time, but biologists believe those lions were transient or just passing through, looking for new habitat, and not part of a local breeding population.

"From what we've learned over time, the information is indicating the mountain lion population in the badlands has been in decline," Williams said.

Department furbearer biologist Stephanie Tucker said she expects varied feedback at the public meetings, as some people believe a declining mountain lion population is a good thing, while others take a different view. "That being said, I think that the majority of North Dakotans believe that mountain lions should be managed in a sustainable way," she said.

Williams agrees, saying, "The peak mountain lion population was maybe higher than many people were comfortable with. Our objective was to reduce that population somewhat, and that has happened. The upcoming meetings will be part of the process that will help Game and Fish determine at what level we will try to maintain mountain lions in the future."

Dates and locations for the public meetings are as follows:
  • Feb. 24 - Fargo Holiday Inn, 7 p.m.
  • Feb. 25 - Game and Fish Department headquarters, Bismarck, 7 p.m.
  • Feb. 29 - Killdeer Cobblestone Hotel and Suites, 7 p.m