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Big cat of Dakotas

By Staff | Apr 25, 2014

Tim Chapman/PCT Stephanie Tucker, furbearer biologist at North Dakota Game and Fish Department, shows a pelt of a North Dakota mountain lion to Frank Martz’s junior high science class at Rugby High School on Wednesday.

Panther is actually a general term referring to a handful of big cat species found around the world. That logo we see around Rugby all the time could represent a black variant of a leopard, jaguar or cougar.

The distinctions and characteristics of North American big cats were discussed on Wednesday at Rugby High School when furbearer biologist Stephanie Tucker visited Frank Martz’s junior high science classes.

Tucker’s presentation focused primarily on mountain lions (Puma concolor), the largest furbearer in North Dakota. She works for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and helps lead an active six-year research project on mountain lions. Her job includes fielding calls about possible furbearer sightings and educating the public about mountain lions and other animals.

“The concern is they’re a bigger threat to human safety than they are,” Tucker said.

Tucker encouraged students to pass around the pelts of North Dakota mountain lions and bobcats. She also displayed the pelts of all furbearers found in the state, including badger, beaver, coyote, fisher (medium-sized mammal), fox, mink, muskrat, raccoon and weasel.

Tucker, a Glen Ullin native, shared a map of the state showing confirmed mountain lion sightings through the past 13 years. The map had one mark in Pierce County, east of Silva near the county line.

Students learned that mountain lions are found mostly in the western part of the state and the animals have a breeding range of 1,031 square miles. Tucker dispelled misperceptions of the mountain lion. They can climb trees, but only tend to do so when escaping predators.

Mountain lions are sometimes misidentified by appearance and tracks. They have retractable claws and don’t leave presence of claws in their tracks like dogs. Mountain lions also keep their tails low and long unlike house cats, which tend to raise their tails. Mountain lions are 10 times the size of house cats and males weigh between 90 and 170 pounds. Females weigh between 75 and 120 pounds.

Other than in the Florida Everglades, mountain lions have no breeding populations east of the Dakotas. An adult mountain lion is 6 to 8 feet long, considerably bigger than the 3-foot bobcat. The oldest documented bobcat found in North Dakota was 11 years old, though 7 years old is pushing it for most of the species.

“I learned a lot about their characteristics and how to identify them properly,” said McKenzie Harner, RHS seventh-grader.

Students also passed around a mountain lion skull to get a better idea of the animal’s teeth.

Martz thanked Tucker for visiting and had his class present her with a black panther stuffed animal. He encouraged his students to look at Tucker as a great example of what students can accomplish in the sciences.

“I really believe in exposing our young people to the world outside these walls,” he said.

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