Is Minnesota becoming cougar country?

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2009 - 11:45 PM

There are definitely a few cougars wandering their way into Minnesota, but most sightings turn out to be false.

Cougar near Floodwood
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Jim Schubitzke shot this image of a cougar using a trail camera triggered by movement in August 2007 near Floodwood, Minn. The Minnesota DNR said it is one of only a half dozen confirmed wild cougar sightings in the state over the past 20 or 30 years, despite hundreds of reports.

Call it a feline frenzy.

Reports of mountain lions in Minnesota keep rolling in.

Just last month several mountain lions, also called cougars, were reported roaming the woods and fields near Elk River. Last fall came the report that a pair of big cats munched a deer shot by hunters in northern Minnesota.

And this winter, via the Internet, came an eye-popping photo of a huge 190-pound cougar reportedly killed in December in southeastern Minnesota.

Department of Natural Resources wildlife researchers say the animals captured on a video taken near Elk River were foxes and a house cat. They said the evidence of cougars feeding on a deer northwest of Duluth last fall also was unsubstantiated.

That dead mountain lion photo showing up in e-mails to Minnesotans? It's real. But the big cat was shot in Washington state in 2002, not Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa or a dozen other states as claimed in bogus e-mails.

"Well over 95 percent of the sightings reported to us aren't cougars," said John Erb, DNR wildlife research scientist. Some are hoaxes, but most are just cases of mistaken identity, he said. Over the past 30 or so years, despite 50 or more reports yearly, sightings of only about six wild cougars have been confirmed, he said. Other cougars have been spotted, captured and even killed -- including cats in Willmar in 2006 and Bloomington in 2002 -- but officials believe they were domesticated mountain lions that escaped or were released by their owners.

The most recent confirmed sightings in Minnesota were in 2007, when trail cameras put out by deer hunters captured images near Floodwood in the northeast and Brownsville in the southeast.

But officials say reports of cougars definitely have increased in recent years. And while most reports are unsubstantiated or confirmed false, officials say it is likely more cougars are wandering through Minnesota via North and South Dakota, which have sustainable populations. There's no evidence -- yet -- that the big cats have reestablished residence here, but it's possible they eventually could, Erb said.

"I would be surprised if there's more than a couple wanderers in the state at any one time, sometimes zero, sometimes two or maybe three," he said. "But I won't be surprised at all if that changes. There certainly is potential for a small group to establish somewhere. We certainly have lots of deer [to feed on] and lots of remote habitat."

Erb said cougar populations have increased in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and that young male cougars sometimes are forced to disperse.

"Some of them are coming east," he said.

Lots of lions?

The Minnesota reports, though, greatly exceed the few cougars that occasionally wander into the state, officials say. Mountain lions have a certain allure that sparks lots of interest. They are, after all, big, wild cats capable of taking down a deer -- with a reputation for occasionally attacking humans.

"Since 1890, there have been 22 people killed in North America by cougars," said Mark Dowling of the Cougar Network, a nonprofit organization that studies the big cats. "They generally are very timid of people." A few thousand cougars reside in California with about 36 million people, and attacks are extremely rare, he said.

Still, when people in Minnesota think they've seen one, they usually speak up. "People everywhere think they've seen cougars," Erb said.

What are they seeing?

"In my opinion, they're most likely seeing a bobcat, dog, wolf, deer or maybe a lynx," he said. "I don't think a lot of people are intentionally lying, they get a glimpse of something and convince themselves it might be a cougar."

There are several reasons wildlife officials don't believe there is an established population here:

• "In Florida, where they have 30 to 50 animals, they have one to two road-kills a year," Erb said. "South Dakota [which has about 250 cougars in the Black Hills] has up to 10 road-kills a year. We've never had one to my knowledge in the last 50 or more years."

• Despite thousands of trappers in the state, no cougars have ever been caught.

• There likely are thousands of remote trail cameras placed in the woods by hunters to survey deer, bears and other game, yet cougars are very rarely photographed.

Jim Schubitzke, 69, of Floodwood, is an exception. He set out several trail cameras, which are triggered by motion, to photograph deer in 2007. Among the critters he photographed was a mountain lion.

"I was totally surprised," Schubitzke said this week. "People have seen cougars up here for years, but no one has ever gotten a photo." The DNR lists Schubitzke's sighting as confirmed.

Protected, for now

Because more cougars, including domesticated ones, seem to be showing up in Minnesota, the DNR is developing a guide for how to handle cougar encounters. It will be posted on the agency's website.

The DNR also is pushing legislation that would allow law enforcement agencies to shoot a cougar that poses a human threat without first obtaining a permit, as now required.

"Right now we're telling local law enforcement to make your best decision on how to handle it, and we'll issue a permit after the fact, because we don't want anyone to get hurt," said Dennis Simon, DNR wildlife chief.

"The vast majority [of cougar reports] are misidentification or hoax, but we know cougars do exist in Minnesota."

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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