A female mountain lion's journey from British Columbia to the Helena Valley in Montana has made history.
A mountain lion named Sandy has crossed the U.S. border with Canada, the Continental Divide, and the western prairie near Great Falls.
Now it seems she has settled in east of Helena along the Missouri River. The big cat, which was named after the creek where she was originally captured, was collared in southeastern British Columbia near Sand Creek just south of Cranbrook.
Biologists tracking Sandy have said that the 450 mile journey is rare, but not unprecedented. Still, the female lion has traveled a long way and has a story to tell.
Patrick Stent, a wildlife biologist for the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource said, "We're really surprised to see this kind of movement from a female cougar. It's just not common. Males are known to wander pretty far."
The two-year-old cougar was one of three lions that wildlife managers decided needed watching after they began preying on whitetailed deer in urban areas. Of the three, Sandy seemed to be the one with a traveling bug.
She was collared in March but made her move later that spring. Stent said, "In about May, she started making a big movement to the south."
Through the first month, she stayed in the Bull River area southeast of Cranbrook. Within a month she had crossed the U.S/Canada border into Montana. Before long she had made it 60 miles into the state and neared the city of Whitefish.
The GPS collar attached to the big cat gives signal locations once a day so that biologists can track her almost to the square foot.
By the end of July, she logged 165 miles past Whitefish east of the mountains, almost to interstate 15, just west of Great Falls. Scientists noted that Sandy spent a lot of time in forested shelterbelts close to homes in the area.
Stent said, "We think she was using these areas for cover as it's very open country for a lion. It is really common for lions to be living close to residences and go undetected." Not a comforting thought, but information that should be noted for residents in an area where the great cats can settle in.
Around the first of August the Canadian officials tracking her thought that Sandy had met her fate as the signal on her GPS collar was giving them a mortality warning which goes out if the collar does not move for 12 hours.
Even though the scientists feared the worst, soon the wild cat was on the move again, taking a big southern turn toward the east of Helena.
"And that's where she is today," said Stent.
All told, Sandy traveled 450 miles. Montana's mountain lion population is in the area of 3,500 to 4,000 animals. No telling how many of those big cats started out in the high Canadian wilderness.
Photos via Great Falls Tribune