State wildlife officials have confirmed five sightings of mountain lions in Minnesota over the past 13 months, leading at least one state hunting group to set up a reporting system aimed at collecting more data on the big predators.
Wildlife officials say the mountain lions in Minnesota -- including three in the past two months that were photographed by remote trail cameras near Littlefork, Two Harbors and Ortonville, and one that was hit and killed by a car near Bemidji last year -- likely are young males wandering in from the Black Hills of South Dakota. It's unlikely, they say, Minnesota has a resident population of the cats.
The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has created a "Cougar Sightings" reporting system on its website, www.mndeerhunters.com, and is asking people to report sightings.
"Our hope is to generate conversation and awareness,'' Mark Johnson, MDHA executive director, said Thursday. He expects to receive undocumented sightings, but also hopes to get photos, eyewitness accounts or other proof that will shed more light on how many mountain lions might be here, where they are and what they are doing.
"The fact is, we don't know enough about cougars traversing Minnesota,'' Johnson said. "Whether they are living here or traveling through, who knows?''
John Erb, wildlife research scientists with the Department of Natural Resources, said the effort can't hurt.
"You'll get a lot of information you can't do anything with, but the hope is you'll get maybe one or two that have solid data you can do something with. It's a very fascinating species and issue, if you could just filter out all the nonsense that goes with it.''
Erb said he still sees no evidence that there is a resident population of mountain lions here. "In fact, the data we do have supports the notion that they are dispersers'' that sometimes travel through the state.
Including the five most recent confirmed sightings, he said there have been only eight confirmed wild mountain lion sightings in the past 15 years. (Some others seen, captured or killed were believed to have been pen-raised cats that had been released.)
To those who suggest there may be more than a few mountain lions in the state, Erb said all evidence suggests otherwise. The cougar killed near Bemidji last year is the only road-killed cougar ever reported in Minnesota, he said. "South Dakota has six to 10 roadkills every year in the Black Hills,'' he said.
"We have a lot of trappers in the state, and our trappers have never ever reported trapping one,'' he said, including federal trappers who have been trapping problem wolves for decades. "In South Dakota, trappers commonly trap mountain lions incidentally,'' Erb said.
Also, raccoon hunters have never reported their hounds treeing a mountain lion, either, he noted. And those remote trail cameras, which have proliferated in recent years, rarely capture cougar images.
One reason the public responds to cougar sightings is because the cats have been known to kill people. Erb said, given the evidence that few lions roam the state, other wildlife likely poses more potential threat to Minnesotans.
"All wildlife poses some risk,'' he said. "But if you put it in context, your chance of being seriously hurt or killed by a deer-car collision is substantially higher than being attacked by a mountain lion. Or getting Lymes disease from ticks. We've had wolves all these years, but in Minnesota they've never attacked a person.
"I can think of 15 or 20 things that I'd be more worried about.''