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A haunting encounter with a mountain lion

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"From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, dear Lord, deliver us."

This Celtic folk prayer calls down God's protection from all things unseen and unknown that lurk in the back of our minds and in the shadows of our backyards. This time of year conjures up images of poltergeists, werewolves and other legendary nasties. But from the haunting song of the coyote to the shining of eyes in the tall dry grass of a windy autumn evening, the pretend ghosties of the season have much to contend with, especially now as recent sightings of a large cat with near-ghostly abilities have been reported. As excitement over mountain lion appearances spread from the breaks of the Missouri River eastward, the mysteries and tales behind the creatures grow.

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However, there was a time where these long-legged beasties disappeared into the ether, leaving only ghost stories in their wake. Following the indiscriminate killing sprees that claimed large populations of many species on the great plains by settlers and adventurers in the late nineteenth century, mountain lions were not seen in North Dakota for over 50 years. One was sighted near Killdeer in 1958, and between that sighting and the shooting of a marauding female mountain lion in a barn near Golva in 1991, only 11 confirmed encounters were documented by the Game and Fish Department. Recent sightings have the rebounding population of these predators advancing eastward and the Sheyenne Valley is not immune to the close encounters.

One such incident was reported by a citizen of Valley City of a mountain lion within city limits on the night of October 23, 2007. While watching her dog in her backyard on the northern edge of town, the witness (name withheld for publicity concerns) saw her medium-sized Labrador retriever bolt after an animal hiding in the tall grasses near the backyard fence.

"She chases cats around the neighborhood all the time" the witness said, thinking nothing of the incident at first.

That is until a yelp broke the night's silence. With the dog's cry, the witness approached and saw an animal leap from its crouched position on the ground in front of the dog and into the branches of a nearby tree.

"I first saw it in the grass, it was hunched down next to the fence, too low to be a deer, but too big to be the usual tomcat; and when the dog started barking, it jumped up into the tree," she stated. The dog began barking wildly at the creature on the tree limb.

"It was a big cat - a mountain lion; I was scared and the dog would not come back, so I ran inside to get the phone, all the while thinking my dog was going to get eaten," she continued.

The witness called several friends and family members to try and find a way to get the dog back, but she was afraid to go out to the neighboring property edge where she last saw the treed animal and her lab until someone came over. Within minutes, help arrived, and along with two others, the witness found her dog shaking uncontrollably on the porch. The group shined a spotlight into the tall grass near her property. The cat had vanished from the branch and was creeping away from the confrontation.

"We could hear it moving in the grass away from the yard, but we did not see it" the witness stated.

Adamantly, the witness stands by her story, estimating the mountain lion's length at over three feet and probably weighing more than her 60-pound dog. It was no ghost tale, it really happened and it has had a lasting impact on both the dog and the owner.

"It wasn't a tomcat, my dog isn't afraid of any of the neighborhood cats, and she has been shaking ever since that night - she won't even go outside to go to the bathroom anymore," the witness stated, "even I'm scared to go outside, I never expected [a mountain lion] would be this close," she continued.

Though encounters and confrontations are rare, the instances where big cats and humans interact can leave both sides uneasy, however attacks are extremely uncommon. Hunters in all parts of the state at this time of the year are encouraged to be alert in the field and if tracks or other signs of mountain lions - including face-to-face sightings - occur, people should report the instances to the Game and Fish Department for investigation and research on the growing population. People are asked to preserve signs and tracks by covering them with buckets weighted with a heavy object, such as a brick, to preserve the sample's integrity.

For more information on mountain lions in North Dakota, and links to tracks, facts and contact information, log on to www.gf.nd.gov, and take some of the mystery out of one of a number of creatures which do more than go bump in the night...in our outdoors.

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