Dan Stark hadn’t been working long for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources when in December 2009 he was dispatched to follow the tracks of a cougar (aka a mountain lion) that had walked right through someone’s lawn in Champlin. A police officer captured the cat on his dashboard camera, a spotlight illuminating the animal as it walked through a wooded area in the early morning darkness and made its way toward the Mississippi River.

DNR biologists frequently receive reports from people who believe they’ve spotted a cougar. In the Champlin case (video here), there was no chance the animal that appeared on camera was a bobcat, dog or house cat — it was a cougar.

It was exciting for Stark, the agency’s large carnivore specialist. Before coming to Minnesota, he had spent nearly a decade working in Arizona and New Mexico, both of which — unlike Minnesota — have resident cougar populations. Despite working in the field nearly every day in those states, he had seen only one live cougar and come across tracks maybe a half-dozen times. Stark’s experiences mimic Minnesota at large: An apparently random handful of quantifiable data over years that keeps the idea of the stealthy cat’s presence mysterious — and interesting.

“Where I observed the tracks was at the intersection of [interstates] 694 and 35,” Stark said. “There’s a freeway in the background and residences all over the place. It was observed, and we could determine that it was there, so it really demonstrates the extent to which they’re capable of moving through those areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect.”

As he followed the tracks, Stark collected scat, which was sent to a laboratory. Genetic analysis later confirmed the cougar. The cat originated in South Dakota’s Black Hills and, after leaving Minnesota, had traveled through Wisconsin and New York. A trail camera also showed the animal in Michigan. The cat’s story, however, came to a sad conclusion. On June 11, 2011, it was struck and killed by a vehicle in Connecticut, ending a journey that spanned more than 1,700 miles.

“The journey of this mountain lion is a testament to the wonders of nature and the tenacity and adaptability of this species,” said Daniel C. Esty, who at the time was commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“Verified observations”

The big cat’s movement, tracked by biological samples and trail cameras, has fascinated scientists (its travel was the longest of any on record). But they say it also illustrates what likely is going on with cougars in Minnesota: Dispersing young male cats from the Black Hills and other points West travel through the state from time to time, but so far they haven’t established a breeding population.

The DNR receives 50 to 100 cougar reports each year, but the majority can’t be confirmed or turn out to be another animal, said John Erb, a DNR wildlife research scientist with the agency’s Forest Wildlife Research and Populations Group in Grand Rapids. Between 2010 and 2014, there were 19 verified observations in the state — and some of those could have been the same animal. The most-recent confirmed was from a photo Sept. 9 near Gaylord in Sibley County, southwest of the metro.

“Cougars are large carnivores that generate a lot of interest and in some cases, unfortunately, fear,” Erb said. “It’s like anything — people are excited about things that are uncommon or rare. They’re more excited about seeing a moose than a deer, or a fisher than a raccoon. It’s not very exciting to sit down with your buddies and say, ‘I saw a raccoon today.’ ”

Erb alluded to papers from psychologists he has read that explain how people can convince themselves they’ve seen something they didn’t. On the other hand, sometimes people aren’t simply creating a picture in their mind and it truly is mistaken identity. Michelle LaRue is a researcher at the University of Minnesota and executive director of the Cougar Network, which studies the role of cougars in ecosystems and keeps track of sightings. On Fridays, she posts photos to Twitter with the hashtag #CougarOrNot, enticing followers to weigh in with a guess.

Some of the images are of cougars. Others are bobcats, coyotes, dogs or other animals. The range of guesses illustrates the difficulty of positively identifying an animal from just a photo. While sometimes it’s a cougar that’s shown, confirmation requires a visit to the site to try to ensure the picture wasn’t staged, and, preferably, something such as hair or scat.

“One of the biggest questions people have is whether they should be afraid of them,” LaRue said. “In a place like Minnesota, I would venture a guess that you’re probably more likely to win the lottery than to come across one or be hurt by one.”

But the chance exists. Beyond the documented sightings, LaRue has written that Minnesota has some of the best cougar habitat in the Midwest — primarily in the heavily wooded northeastern portion of the state. The state also has an abundance of deer, which are cougars’ main prey. Whether dispersing animals set down roots in the state is unknown. Yet, biologists say the animals that have shown up here to date generally fit the mold of those on the move — mostly young, male cats that strike out on their own to set up a new territory. For example, a cat hit and killed by a vehicle south of Bemidji in 2009 was found to be genetically consistent with populations in North Dakota.

“Tough to study”

One of the reasons LaRue’s group exists is to compile information about cougar recolonization of areas outside the West.

“The reason I’m so fascinated by them is because they are just so elusive,” she said. “They are tough to study for that very reason. There is this sense of wonder about what they are doing and how they make decisions. The notion that these animals are coming back into an area they haven’t been in more than 100 years is fascinating.”

Considering the cougars numbers confirmed in Minnesota through the years, a viable population is at present a long shot. Most of the confirmations have been young males, and females don’t tend to disperse to the same extent. They’d have to cover a lot of ground before arriving in Minnesota, and then a male and female would have to be in the same spot. Would they breed? And, if so, what about the fate of their offspring?

“When (animals are establishing a population), even just a few mortalities can play a big role,” Erb said. “So if two cougars showed up in Minnesota and one got shot or killed, then maybe it’s another 15 years before another one shows up. When you are dealing with low numbers, it’s a very slow process to get something started.”

Still, it could happen.

“There’s potential, but so far it doesn’t appear that’s happened,” Erb said. “It wouldn’t shock me at all, though, if someday it did — whether it’s here or elsewhere in the Midwest. Time will tell.”

Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at writerjoealbert@gmail.com.