With some hunting and fishing stories, you’re never quite sure if the storyteller is stretching the truth when there’s an unusual twist to the tale.
That may be how Leif Holman’s friends at Sweet Grass County High School felt when he told them about the mountain lion he shot in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains on Feb. 20.
They weren’t sure what to think.
He was amazed, too.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Holman said.
Turns out the 2- to 3-year-old female lion, which had no cubs, had traveled all the way from South Dakota. Holman found out after giving a radio-tracking collar the cat was wearing to Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Big Timber FWP biologist Justin Paugh tracked down the source of the collar — a cougar study south of Rapid City, S.D. The lion was collared last summer.
In the time since the 76-pound lion was collared and when Holman shot the cat, it had traveled about 500 miles, crossed two interstate highways and several large rivers.
Holman’s journey to find the cat was almost as unusual. His father, Dave, picked him up from school at about 3 p.m. after a family friend and lion hunter had found a fresh set of tracks.
Before that day, the Holmans had “looked and looked and looked and never found a track,” said his mother, Sandy.
Cerebral palsy has made it difficult for Holman to walk, requiring him to use crutches. So as he trailed the lion and dogs through 3 inches of new snow, the going was slow and difficult. That’s when family friend Shawn Peters picked up the 100-pound 15-year-old and began climbing up the hillside near the small community of Two Dot.
“We were going so fast that everyone else was behind us,” Holman said.
It took only about a half-hour for Cody Peters’ dogs to tree the lion. Once Holman got situated with the 7mm-08 rifle that his grandfather had bought for him, he shot the traveling cougar.
The lion is one of many trophy animal tags that the Melville youth has filled since he began hunting at the age of 12. He has taken deer, elk, a bighorn ewe and a black bear. Next he hopes to shoot a bull elk on his family’s ranch.
“If it wasn’t for Leif, we wouldn’t eat,” said his mother. “He gets our meat.”
The cougar’s collar was for locating the animal only, not one that stores the cat’s location onboard, which would have detailed the mountain lion’s circuitous stroll across two or three states.
According to FWP, the lion was the third from a South Dakota study to make its way deep into Montana within the past two years.
Paugh, the FWP biologist, learned from the manufacturer that the collar’s serial number indicated it was sold to a cooperative study by South Dakota State University and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
According to SDSU biology student Beckie Juarez, the mountain lion was captured and fitted with a radio collar last year near Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills National Forest, 55 miles southwest of Rapid City, S.D. Biologists followed the lion for about a week before radio-tracking receivers lost the signal from the collar. Apparently after getting captured and collared, the lion decided it didn’t want to stick around South Dakota any longer.
Paugh said it is not unusual for young male lions to disperse from their home in search of new territory to call their own. But he called the length of the trek that Holman’s lion took “pretty amazing,” especially for a mature female.
Lions are known to travel far on occasion. Last year, a hunter in the Bears Paw Mountains near Havre shot a sub-adult male mountain lion that had been collared and released in South Dakota a year before. In January, a 6-year-old female, first caught in South Dakota in 2007, was killed in the Little Belt Mountains near Monarch.
So evidently humans aren’t the only nonresidents who like to hunt in the Big Sky state.
South Dakota researchers started 2013 with collars on 46 lions in the Black Hills, Juarez said. This winter, six have been killed or died of nonhunting causes. Two are missing from the Black Hills for the past six months. Lions have dispersed into Wyoming and North Dakota, as well as Montana.
The 15-year-old South Dakota study uses radio collars and DNA sampling in an attempt to estimate the cougar population in the Black Hills, Juarez said. It also is providing biologists with valuable data about lion dispersal.
-- Bob Gibson, of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, contributed to this story