"In 38 years of being a game warden, I've never met a live cougar," said Bruce Burkett, investigation superintendent for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
That changed Friday night after a 100-pound male mountain lion was shot near the former Home Depot Building in north Bismarck.
For Marvin Beck and his two children, it was also a first. En route to buying groceries at the north Wal-Mart, they saw the animal crossing in front of their headlights at around 6:30 p.m. to the east on Calgary Avenue.
"Less than 50 yards. We could see it plain as day. It was a mountain lion," Beck said.
"My eyes got really big, and I went ‘omigosh, is that really a mountain lion?'" said daughter Maari, 14. "We went into this street, turned our headlights on it and kind of lost where it went."
"I saw it coming and he started running," said his son Meric, 11.
Beck called the Bismarck police, who brought in NDGF wardens. He watched from his vehicle to the south until authorities came.
"Once he saw the headlights ... he did a pretty good jog going across," Beck said.
"(I wanted) to make sure it wouldn't come out of the south side of the street," he said. "I noticed a couple of kids out on their bicycles and told them ‘you probably want to go home.'"
He used his lights to see where it would go. The animal settled in a grassy area on a rock pile about 150 yards away.
NDGF Warden Pilot Amy Brown arrived shortly before 7 p.m. "I shined the spotlight across the field to see . ... There in a rock pile ... I saw these big green eyes. ... I called Bruce (Burkett) and said ‘I think this is the real deal.'"
Brown's biggest concern was how close it was to the homes.
"It was a matter of keeping an eye on it to make sure it stayed there, or if we spooked it away, I wanted to know where it was until I had someone else there," she said.
The NDGF partnered with the Bismarck Police Department on the call.
Brown continued to shine the spotlight while Burkett and and a police officer moved toward it.
"We approached it from the east. If it was a cougar in there, if we flushed it out, it would be in the light instead of the dark toward the houses," Burkett said.
Bismarck Police Officer Jason Bullis fired a shotgun from 15 yards away after the mountain lion peaked its head out of the rock pile. Burkett said a shotgun was used because it was safer in the neighborhood than a rifle.
"It exposed itself to Officer Bullis. Our policy is if a cougar is in an urban setting, we have to take it out," Burkett said.
"If a mountain lion becomes habituated to humans, it is a dangerous situation," said Randy Kreil, chief of the Wildlife Division for the NDGF. "We don't want to take that chance."
"It was within 100-200 yards of occupied houses," Burkett said. "It was the only thing we could do. We didn't want to chase it into a populated spot. It was sitting in a spot we felt we could control," Burkett said.
Burkett said it is the first time in NDGF history that a cougar was taken out in city limits anywhere in the state. There had been no solid evidence from earlier investigations.
The NDGF is storing the remains. A biologist will study it this week to determine its age, where it came from and what it has been eating. DNA tests will help wardens determine its origin. Burkett said it appears to be a full-grown male, measuring six feet long.
Burkett said should not be alarmed about other mountain lions clustering here. Males are generally alone.
"It was probably just a transient that was moving and stopping overnight in the wrong spot," Burkett said. "This is the time of year, males get kicked out of home."
He said they travel hundreds of miles in a short time. It's not uncommon for the animals to move between South Dakota and Canada or across the border from Montana.
Kreil said the Missouri River proves a popular corridor for the animals to travel.
"It's bound to happen," Burkett said. "There are more of them around. They've just expanded their range."
Burkett said the mountain lion can be aggressive. "If it felt cornered, it certainly would defend itself."
Burkett said no people have been injured by a cougar in North Dakota, but it can happen.
"The ones that do become dangerous are the ones that become injured, that aren't naturally able to fend for themselves or they got sick, or put them at a disadvantage to survive out in nature," he said. "The average situation of meeting a cougar is he doesn't want to meet you and he wants to go the other way."
What happens on the scarce chance you meet a cougar on foot?
"Don't run away from it. Don't go towards it. Just stand your ground and face it. It doesn't like to be challenged either," Burkett said.
He said 99.9 percent of the time the animal will go the other way if you ignore it.
"If it's a healthy animal, it doesn't want to have any contact with us," Burkett said.
Beck is certain it's not something his kids will forget.
"It's not something you expect to see," said Beck. "It should be an eye opener for other people."
(Reach reporter LeAnn Eckroth at 250-8264 or email@example.com.)