Mountain lion scares bikers during 45-minute ordeal

Thursday, June 23, 2005

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Claire Brook said the mountain lion she saw had "very pretty teeth." And Kenneth Campbell said its growl was not as loud as one would think.

The mountain bikers said they came almost face to fang with a cougar on Monday on the Maah Daah Hey Trail in southwestern North Dakota.

The cougar followed the cyclists for about half a mile, coming within 10 feet of them three times during the 45-minute ordeal.

"He charged us three times. He could have taken us down and eaten us, if he wanted to," said Campbell, 37, of Aurora, Colo.

"We both had digital cameras," said Brook, 29, of St. Louis. "But taking a picture was the last thing we wanted to be doing."

Instead, the bikers, who had just met on Saturday, threw rocks and sticks and screamed at the cougar. They used their bicycles as shields.

Their brush with the big cat prompted wildlife officials to hire a professional hunter to kill the cougar, the first such action ever taken in North Dakota.

"This was not simply a chance occurrence," said Roger Rostvet, state Game and Fish Department deputy director. "It exhibited aggressive behavior toward the bikers ... we have a policy of dispatching those animals."

Mountain lions are protected in North Dakota and there is no hunting season. There has never been a report of a mountain lion attacking a person in the state. Confirmed sightings are rare.

Marty Beard, of Bismarck, said the cougar had more than a day's head start before he could get to the Badlands and hunt the animal.

"I've followed a lot of cats," Beard said Wednesday. "This one could be a long way off by now."

Beard said he and his two cougar-tracking hounds had killed or cornered about 30 mountain lions in other states in the past. But he said heavy rains on Monday night washed away any sign of the cougar in southwestern North Dakota.

"The rain caused the lion's scent and tracks to disappear like smoke," he said.

Beard said he traveled more than 10 miles by mule tracking the cougar on Wednesday. Greg Simonson with the National Wildlife Service accompanied him.

The hunt was called of early Wednesday afternoon.

Campbell is an engineer at a Denver hospital, and Brook is an unemployed chemist who holds a Ph.D. They met through friends along the 96-mile trail which runs in the Badlands from near Medora to the Watford City area. Thousands of hikers, cyclists and horseback riders use the trail each year.

Brook said she first saw the cougar while Campbell was changing a flat tire on her bicycle.

"He was about 30 feet from us," Brook said. She then notified her riding buddy.

"I looked up, and there was that stupid cat coming up on us," Campbell said.

They took off walking down the trail, not bothering to fix the tire.

"We felt the best thing to do was to make forward progress," Brook said. "He followed us down the trail, for what felt like mile after mile."

Campbell said every time he threw a rock or a stick at the cougar, "he would step back and dodge it."

The cyclists walked about five miles back to their camp site. A friend had already called authorities when they didn't show up on time.

State Game and Fish biologist Dorothy Fecske said there were 67 cougar sightings in North Dakota last year, but only seven were confirmed.

A mountain lion was killed in western North Dakota last September by a bowhunter who believed the cat threatened him, Fecske said. The cougar was shot with an arrow near Lone Butte in McKenzie County.

Fecske said the cat the mountain bikers saw was likely a young male, transiting the area. She said cougars are "usually shy and secretive and avoid humans at all costs."

Fecske said the cyclists did the right thing by being aggressive toward the animal.

"If you act like prey, you will be treated like prey," she said.

Campbell said he came close to a cougar in Colorado a few years ago while riding his bike and knew to be aggressive around the animals. Rocks and yelling scared the cat away, he said.

Brook said Campbell may be some sort of a cougar magnet.

"I told him he better change his deodorant," Brook said.

The mountain bikers said they would continue to ride the trail until Saturday, before heading home.

Loren Morlock, who has run a bicycle shop and tour company out of Medora for the past 11 years, said he has never seen a mountain lion, but he's heard reports of them over the years.

"I wouldn't go alone, that's for sure," Morlock said. "I think you'd be fine in a group."

Fecske said that's good advice.

Bob Timian, chief enforcement officer for Game and Fish, said another hunt could be planned for the cougar if a similar incident occurs.

"We don't want to underplay this thing about the cat and we don't want to overplay it," Timian said.

He said people should not be afraid to use the trail.

"You have a better chance of encountering something you don't want to bike riding in a major city than on the Maah Daah Hey Trail," he said.

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