OPINION: Pondering the cougar shooting in Bismarck, N.D.

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Pondering (but not second guessing) the mountain lion shooting

By CLAY JENKINSON | Posted: Sunday, December 6, 2009 2:00 am

I was really saddened and disturbed by the killing of the mountain lion in north Bismarck on Thanksgiving Friday (Nov. 27). After a family spotted the lion at 6:30 p.m. near the former Home Depot building east of State Street, Bismarck police and North Dakota Game and Fish employees hurried to the scene, where a police officer killed the mountain lion by way of a shotgun at 15 yards.

The mountain lion was 6 feet long. It was a young male. It weighed 100 pounds. It was killed shortly after 7 p.m.

Of course I understand why the mountain lion was killed. As the Tribune editorialized Wednesday, better safe than sorry. Imagine if authorities had done nothing and the lion had attacked a pedestrian. Denunciation of Game and Fish would be drowned by demands that we undertake a punitive extermination program throughout the state. When a potentially dangerous creature wanders into an urban environment, or rather if it is spotted in an urban setting, its death is a near inevitability.

I get it, and I am not criticizing the response of the Bismarck police and Game and Fish on a holiday night, in the dark, in an empty field just a few hundred steps from a densely populated apartment complex. I’m not automatically going to say they did the right thing, but I do believe they acted responsibly, and that they should not be criticized for their handling of the incident. They responded according to the protocols and the missions of their agencies.

The death of a mountain lion is not the end of the world — except of course to the mountain lion.

Still …

I’m terribly saddened, and I just want to wonder out loud if perhaps there is another way to think about what happened last week.

The way to achieve understanding is to try to clear our minds of irrational fears and ignorant prejudices, and to learn what we can about the behavior patterns of the other species in question. Here’s what we know. The mountain lion was a fully-grown young male. Such young males are driven out of their birth habitat. They go in search of new homes that meet their desired habitat parameters — access to food, shelter, mating partners, and security. (Just like us.) The lion killed last week was almost certainly just passing through — along what Game and Fish naturalists acknowledge is a natural corridor or “highway” along the valley of the Missouri River. In other words, if it had not been spotted, or if it had just been left alone, it almost certainly would have been well away from the human settlements in and around Bismarck within 24 hours.

Unlike coyotes, mountain lions do not like to live in or near human settlements. The chances that this one was going to set up housekeeping behind Home Depot are roughly zero. It might have been possible for the police and Game and Fish to maintain a vigil at the four corners of the empty lot in question, guns ready, the folks in the neighborhood warned to be cautious, with the understanding that the lion would almost certainly lope out of town in the course of the night.

Might it not have been possible to tranquilize the mountain lion (with lethal force poised as backup if things miscarried)? Again, I acknowledge that it was a holiday evening, after dark, and the lion was hiding in a cavity among glacial rocks bulldozed into a pile in the middle of the empty field. I visited the site Saturday afternoon. The mountain lion had chosen a very good place to hide. There were no animal bones at the killing site, among the glacial rubble. This was not a hunting midden of a long-term resident.

Mountain lions almost never attack humans. On extremely rare occasions, they do, and those scattered stories have created a folk terror that is not supported by the facts. Each year there are approximately 25 fatal dog attacks on humans in the United States, and hundreds of life-threatening but non-fatal attacks. The total number of recorded mountain lion attacks on humans between 1890 and 1990 in the United States was 53, of which 10 were fatal. None of these incidents occurred in North Dakota. The sad truth is that our irrational fear of mountain lion attacks belongs to the same category of humanity’s ancient fear and hatred of wolves or vampire bats.

To put it in a glib, pop-cultural perspective, a citizen of Bismarck Friday night was almost infinitely more likely to die from a domestic shooting, a drug overdose, an alcohol-related car accident, or driving while texting (guilty!), than from an attack of a majestic peripatetic mountain lion on a fascinating and mysterious journey to somewhere else far from Burleigh County.

What happened that night, not at the center of Bismarck but up at the northern frontier, with a clear wash-and-coulee escape route to safer prairies, was certainly the safe and “right” thing to do, but I confess that it feels a little hasty to me, a little reactive, a little unimaginative, and a little irrational.

Better safe than sorry. But I know two things. First, if I saw a mountain lion anywhere in North Dakota, including here, I’d be the happiest man alive. Second, knowing what I know now, the very last thing I would do would be to call the authorities.

(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College. He can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his Web site, Jeffersonhour.org.)



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