Absarokee mountain lion sightings still occuring into fall
For the past six months, Absarokee area residents have been living with mountain lions in their midst.
Considering Absarokee is prime lion habitat, the big cats have most likely always been present, but stayed hidden from view. But that wasn’t the case for the past handful of months, as the notoriously reclusive animals were spotted by multiple people in multiple locations from May until as recently as two weeks ago.
The rush of seeing a wild creature quickly turned into concern for the safety of children, pets and livestock. And then came frustration, when Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) did not respond as urgently as many in the community felt it should have.
“I do not think FWP has taken the mountain lion issue seriously from day 1,” said longtime Absarokee resident Michele Orlich. “The area that this lion was being seen is occupied by children that are alone most of time (the swimming pool and the playground in the front). I watched it cross Grove Street heading north towards the swimming pool.”
Orlich added that never before in her 17 years of residency has she ever seen or heard of a lion “being so nonchalant about being seen at all times of the day or night.”
FWP Game Warden Paul Luepke says he understands the safety concerns and recommended that pets be brought in at night and children not be allowed outside alone near the river. Luepke, a father himself, spent time in Absarokee with a biologist and other officials to monitor the lions’ behavior.
Monitoring is what FWP chose to do with the Absarokee lions. The agency watched for changes in behavior, such as being in town in the middle of the day or killing pets or livestock, said Luepke.
Now into fall, the sightings continue, with Sharon Cavender having seen a lion crossing the back of her property on multiple occasions in the last few weeks.
Among other eye-witnesses to the big cats around town have been Michele Orlich, Gary Heard, Cheryl Kennedy and Diann Ogren.
That does not include an additional four people who reportedly saw lions between June 29 and Sept. 3 and reported those on the “Come Together Absarokee” Facebook page.
A few of the sightings occurred during daylight hours and early in the summer, a lion and cub were reported. Later on, a single lion was seen most often.
Officially reported sightings number just four — June 22, July 6, Aug. 23 and Sept. 9, according to Stillwater County Sheriff’s dispatch records. The details of those reports included a large lion running down Brook Avenue at 5:26 a.m., Luepke advising deputies of a lion running around Absarokee at night, a lion near Hawkins Park at 12:21 p.m. and a lion near Shipp’s in an alley at 11:36 p.m.
Additionally, on Sept. 1, an Absarokee resident reported a section of a fence had been torn out by a mountain lion. Luepke also received some direct calls but said recently he had expected to get a lot more.
The lack of officially reported sightings is a point of frustration for FWP.
Both Luepke and FWP Capt. Harold Guse told the News that Luepke would get a report of someone who had seen a lion multiple times, only to talk to that person and learn the information was second or third hand, and sometimes, inaccurate.
That made getting accurate information a challenge.
“There have been no repeated multiple sightings,” said Guse last week, adding his office in Billings also received several calls on the matter.
Facebook posts, noted Guse and Luepke, do not constitute official reporting.
Guse also said that in the beginning, people did not indicate they had any safety concerns.
“We want people to feel safe,” said Guse.
As far as taking the lion or lions out of the Absarokee area, that is challenging as “removal of lions from urban settings is very difficult,” said Guse.
As for FWP’s official stance on Absarokee’s lions, an email on Aug. 30 from FWP Regional Supervisor Barb Beck to Kennedy explains it clearly:
“As we mentioned, mountain lions are found in most areas of Montana, and being a resident of Absarokee as in many other communities would suggest awareness of native wildlife is prudent. Based on the years of experience FWP has, we have no specific concerns related to lion activity for school kids or any residents of Absarokee. However, we have proactively reached out to school administration so that we can answer any questions they might have and provide them the opportunity to report anything at all of concern to them.
I’m sorry you have indicated that you continue to feel threatened by this situation. Please know that we are actively involved in ensuring you and others in your community remain safe. Should the situation change, so too will our management strategy Cheryl. Please do stay in touch,” wrote Beck.
RESIDENTS REMAIN DISPLEASED
Kennedy met with Beck, Guse and one other official on Aug. 31 at her home. The meeting, and subsequent follow-up, did not satisfy Kennedy. Mary Hudson had a similar meeting and feels the same.
“I am very disappointed in the FWP. Three of us met with three from FWP. They did not even want to see where we had seen the cat and did not even look at the tracks,” said Hudson. “I have heard of others seeing the cat recently, but why would you even bother with FWP?”
Cavender echoed that sentiment.
“I’ve been in contact with people who who did report it and they were so displeased with it I didn’t bother,” said Cavender.
Cavender also said that when FWP and a trapper came to her property to examine a horse that she thought might have been attacked by a lion, she was treated very well. The wildlife officials ended up deciding that the claw marks on the horse were not big enough to have been made by a lion. Cavender thinks the men are correct. She also said she thinks “it’s very clear that politics are keeping him (the local game warden) from doing his job.”