One thing's for sure: People have a fascination with mountain lions.
Sightings, whether confirmed or hearsay, always get people talking.
"It definitely stirs up some local discussion," said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.
That has been readily apparent since mid-November, when a mountain lion showed up on two different trail cameras a landowner had set on his property near Devils Lake.
The buzz continued in December, when a hunter legally shot and killed a mountain lion northwest of Hillsboro, North Dakota, and a few days later, when a trapper came across a mountain lion in a snare near Lisbon, in the southeast part of the state.
The mountain lion died in the snare, and the trapper turned the cat, a male weighing about 150 pounds, over to Game and Fish as required because the department limits the legal take to hunting.
The cat will be utilized for department educational programs, Williams said.
Game and Fish has offered a mountain lion season since 2005, Williams said. The department closed the late season in Zone 1, the part of western North Dakota that encompasses the prime mountain lion range, on Friday, Dec. 29. The late-season limit of seven cats or three females prompted the closure when the third female was shot.
A conditional season in Zone 1 opened Thursday for hunters to pursue the additional two cats that weren't taken during the early season. The early harvest limit in Zone 1 was eight, and hunters shot only six cats, Game and Fish said.
The season in Zone 2, which encompasses the rest of the state, has no harvest limit and is open through March 31.
As with other large predators such as gray wolves, which remain federally protected in North Dakota and Minnesota, the idea of hunting mountain lions is controversial.
"We still hear from people that think we're totally off-base in having a mountain lion season, and we still hear from people who think we're not going far enough with harvesting enough mountain lion," Williams said. "We feel we've struck a pretty good balance in North Dakota as far as what we've done with mountain lion seasons and the ability to adjust the harvest limit."
Fear and fascination
The fascination with mountain lions takes many forms, experts say. Fear could be part of the attraction, as well as a desire to see a wild animal that inhabited parts the region before settlement and appears to be making a comeback, independent Minnesota biologist Steve Loch told the Grand Forks Herald in 2011.
According to the Department of National Resources, Minnesota doesn't have a breeding population of mountain lions, so the animals aren't studied in the state.
"Many people who have not lived in mountain lion country fear lions," Loch said. "Indeed, some who do live in lion country fear lions. I guess some people hold considerable interest in what they fear."
In his book, "The Mammals of North Dakota," UND Professor Emeritus of Biology Robert Seabloom writes that mountain lions historically resided across the Great Plains but never were common.
There were no early records of mountain lions in eastern North Dakota, Seabloom writes, and cats that historically inhabited North Dakota west of the Missouri River disappeared by the early 20th century. There is speculation that the cats moved into the rugged country of western North Dakota from neighboring western states.
Determining the size of the population is difficult, but Game and Fish deemed it high enough to open the hunting season in 2005, Williams said.
"We haven't put out any type of population estimate," Williams said. "That's just a really challenging thing to do, to try to come up with what actual numbers are in the state."
In August 2011, the department launched a research project with South Dakota State University to collar mountain lions in an effort to learn more about their movements, home ranges and habitat preferences.
While a few collared cats still are out there, Williams said, the bulk of that research is complete.
In a report published this past October, Game and Fish said the department received 42 mountain lion reports in the one-year period from July 2016 through June 2017. Only 20 of those reports could be verified, primarily from the northern Badlands region of western North Dakota.
On the move
The big cats have a knack for going undetected, but the prevalence of trail cameras and the images they reveal suggest there might be more cats out there than people thought, some undoubtedly en route to who knows where.
"There's no doubt-when their mind's set on moving, they can get it done," Williams said.
Never, perhaps, was that more apparent than in December 2004 and January 2005. A young male mountain lion spotted Dec. 5, 2004 near Turtle River State Park west of Grand Forks had a radio collar, fitted near the Black Hills as part of a South Dakota study tracking the movement of juvenile cats.
According to Herald archives, a pilot for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department picked up the cat's signal Dec. 15, 2004 near Manvel, N.D., and again a week later south of Karlstad, Minn.
In early January 2005, a Minnesota DNR pilot flying an aerial deer survey picked up the cat's signal in a remote part of the Roseau River Wildlife Management Area.
That mountain lion eventually crossed into Manitoba, more than 600 miles from where it was collared, and that was the last anyone heard of it.
Another mountain lion collared as part of the same study was killed by a train in Oklahoma, more than 600 miles in the opposite direction.
Other recent sightings include a cat killed in September 2015 by a motorist near Lawton, North Dakota, a mountain lion hit and killed by a vehicle near Bemidji in September 2009 and a cat treed and photographed in 2013 by a coyote hunter hunting with hounds south of Osakis, Minnesota.
Whether the recent increase in mountain lion reports from eastern North Dakota is coincidence or part of a trend is difficult to say, Williams said.
"One thing I've learned about mountain lions in North Dakota is to never say never," he said. "Is there a small portion of habitat in the eastern part of the state in various places that you could see a mountain lion getting comfortable in? I think the answer is probably yes on that."