The cowboys and the cat: Perseverance brings family last mountain lion of the North Dakota season
A near Christmas miracle happened in the North Dakota badlands.
The Wisness family of Keene is an example of cowboy talent and perseverance. In high school, Levi and Beau were each state champions in wrestling. They went on to become top bulldoggers, and Levi won the PRCA’s Badlands Circuit steer wrestling title for 2003 and 2004. Chase was tromping on their heels to continue the family legacy until tragedy struck when he was en-route to a wrestling clinic and was in a car crash, leaving Chase partially paralyzed. Tragedy doubled when Levi was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Ranching communities are close knit, like family. When one hurts, everyone feels the pain. The many friends and neighbors of the Wisness family, some generational, gathered to share the load. Rusty Christopherson was among them.
“Levi and I talked on the phone at least once a week, especially when he was sick and Chase was goin’ through all that,” Rusty recalls. “Most every time he’d ask me about the hounds and the hunting. Then this one day he said, ‘Do ya’ ever think we might get Chase in on a cat to shoot sometime?’”
“I said, ‘With the people that we have around our country who are all anxious to help, we can get it done.’”
That was July 2008, a week before Levi Wisness died.
Time passed, and Chase learned to cope with his limitations. With the help of a special saddle Levi had built for him in Texas, he could ride a horse.
“It’s a pretty good feeling,” he said. “It’s good to be able to be as tall as everyone else.”
According to Dusty Hausauer, Chase, who ranches with his father and brother, also shows up whenever a neighbor needs help.
“He’ll be out there in that wheelchair pushin’ cattle up a chute or helpin’ someone load, with a big grin on his face,” he said.
Even so, the years did not dim Rusty’s memory of Levi’s wish, nor his determination to fulfill it.
Despite several attempts and lots of help, that dream seemed far away.
Then, in a perfect storm of sorts, everything came together, just before Christmas.
“Up here in North Dakota they only let us take seven cats after the dog hunting part of the season opens in late November, and time was kind’a running out,” Rusty said. “A lot of people had been watching for cats and sign. Ace Gilman and my girlfriend Hailey Schaper went six or seven miles the day before looking for cats or sign. Things looked good, so a whole bunch – maybe eight or 10 of us – got together and we put Chase on a calf sled and took him into the Badlands. I had my four dogs and Chaston Lee had a couple dogs involved. Dad and them were all out helping, driving around.
“Everybody just dropped what they were doing,” he explained, “and there were people there on the first hunt that didn’t even know Chase from Adam – a couple of rodeo guys that just came along. Everyone just threw in and picked up and there wasn’t one complaint from people going up and down those hills on their hands and knees, in those cedar pockets and such. And we got Chase almost right up to a shot on a cat – twice – and both times they got away.”
Despite the bad luck, Chase was happy, Hausauer said. He hadn’t had a chance to go into those kinds of areas much since the accident. Spirits were high and everyone believed they were going to get the cat.
“When the one cat headed down where we knew Chase couldn’t go, it was him that told Beau to get down there and shoot it,” Rusty said. “He was more happy, I think, for his brother than when he got his own shot.”
Beau never though he’d get to shoot a mountain lion, either.
“Yeah, Beau used my gun, a 223 Remington I bought a few years ago, to shoot that cat of his,” Chase said with a grin.
Rusty said it was a grin no one could wipe off his face during the hunt. Even though Chase didn’t get the cat that day, it wasn’t the end of the dream for him.
The big day was still ahead.
“Dusty and I’d been lookin for tracks that morning early. We’d been hunting the day before too, and then we decided to meet on our place. We’ve got this place the other side of the river, so we were gon’na go look for tracks there. We started probably about three in the morning and drove a lot looking for tracks, but we didn’t have any luck.”
“Then Corey Hugelen found this track on his place, and cut it and had his dogs on it a while. He called Rusty, and he got ahold of us, so we went over there. If it hadn’t been for him we might never have gotten one,” Chase said.
For Chase, that’s when the crunch really came.
“Obviously getting the cat was the bigger leap and a big reward – I think mostly for Rusty and everyone that was helping. It was a pretty awesome experience, and you really appreciate the good friends you got dragging you around to help this happen,” he said.
He was pretty nervous during the hunt, because he’d never had such an audience while he was shooting.
“I had my 223 Remington that Beau had used to get his cat,” he said. “I heard Dusty say, ‘Take your time,’ and I took a couple deep breaths and then pulled the trigger. The cat jumped out of the tree and took off, with the dogs chasing it and Rusty asked me ‘Did you get it?’ I said, ‘I think so,’ but I was pretty nervous there for a while. Then in a little bit I said, ‘What happens if you miss one?’ Some guy standing back there said, ‘They jump out of the tree and run off, just like that one did.’”
But that one didn’t run far, and the dogs were on its tail. Soon Rusty was packing the cat to put in Chase’s arms, with the biggest North Dakota grin.
“I was sure glad I didn’t miss him,” Chase said. “I just can’t say enough about the people that helped and everyone that was there.”
It was the last cat of the North Dakota season. Rusty said the moment Chase got his cat was what he’d been working for that whole time.
“It might not have been the biggest cat, but it’s one we’ll remember forever,” Rusty said. “And I do really believe maybe Levi was looking down on us and that was his way of giving both of his brothers his last Christmas present. I really do believe thats what kinda happened – it was meant to be.” ❖
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