A cougar's incredible two-year journey from the Black Hills of South Dakota, through the suburban Twin Cities, to western Wisconsin, then around the Great Lakes and ending in Connecticut has set a record and left wildlife experts scratching their heads.
"That's definitely amazing," said Jess Carstens, a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Carstens had helped track the elusive movements of the big cat, which became known as the "Twin Cities Cougar" or "St. Croix Cougar" after a series of sightings across the region in 2009.
"Prior to this, the farthest known movement for a cougar was 600 to 700 miles, and that was from the Black Hills to Oklahoma," Carstens said. "For this one to go in excess of 1,000 miles -- and probably more like 1,600 miles or more after circumventing the Great Lakes -- it's remarkable for a terrestrial animal to make that kind of hike."
The 140-pound cougar was struck and killed by a sport-utility vehicle on June 11 near Milford, Conn., just 70 miles from New York. DNA and other evidence confirmed the cougar was the same one that began causing a stir in the suburban Twin Cities late in 2009, experts said Tuesday.
Along with the record-setting trip, it also marks the first confirmed presence of a cougar in Connecticut in modern times.
Police in Champlin first reported seeing the cougar on Dec. 5, 2009. Sightings followed in Vadnais Heights and Stillwater. Then the cougar crossed the St. Croix -- perhaps over the ice, although they are good swimmers -- into St. Croix and Pierce counties, Carstens said. A trail camera near Downsville, Wis., south of Menomonie, snapped a candid photo.
That was about when Barry Anderson, who farms near Spring Valley, Wis., discovered a long trail of what he believed to be cougar prints in the snow near wooded land on his property.
"They were huge prints, maybe 5, 5 1/2 inches wide and maybe 6 inches long," he said.
He took photos with a tape measure beside them, and DNR officials came to investigate. Some bits of hair, in crusted snow, were collected for DNA samples.
Adrian Wydeven, another wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, confirmed the prints on the Anderson farm were the same cougar.
Based on tracks and other evidence, the same cougar passed by Eau Claire, and eventually turned north. On Feb. 15, 2010, Wydeven followed cougar tracks in Bayfield County, south of Cable, Wis., and obtained a scat sample for DNA analysis, eventually learning it was the same cougar tracked in St. Croix and Dunn counties. Another trail camera in Michigan's Upper Peninsula photographed what biologists believe to be the same animal a few weeks later. It's likely the cougar made its way into Ontario and circled back south to the United States.
In Connecticut, wildlife experts at first thought the cougar was a captive that had escaped, since the nearest known breeding cougar populations are in Florida or the Black Hills. But the data collected by the biologists pieced together a remarkable story.
"It's a topic of high public interest," said wildlife biologist Paul Rego of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "This was the first time we have confirmed the presence of a cougar."
A necropsy revealed that the cougar was in near-perfect condition before it was struck by the SUV. "It was in good shape, almost athletic," Rego said.
Carstens said it's hard to know what spurred the cougar, a male, to keep moving. But a good guess is the biological motivation known to be common in males of other species as well: food and females.
A male cougar's range is much wider than a female's, Carstens said, because it overlaps with the range of several potential mates. As a cougar population grows, as in the Black Hills, males tend to disperse when others become dominant.
And as long as there's a food source, such as the ample supply of deer in western Wisconsin, cougars can keep moving, Carstens said.
"But, boy, why move all the way to Connecticut?" he said.
Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999