For the first time in recent memory, a mountain lion has been shot by a citizen in Minnesota.

State wildlife officials said on Thursday they are investigating the shooting of 125-pound male cougar on Sunday in southwestern Minnesota -- the latest in a growing number of encounters between humans and the elusive cat as young males spread east from wild country in the Dakotas.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) declined to release details, but local news reports said Bruce Ihnen of Round Lake Township was leaving his brother's farm around 6:30 p.m. on Sunday when he spotted the cat running from a grove of trees and into a culvert. He called a friend, Daniel Hamman, who came with a rifle. When Ihnen chased the cat out of the culvert, Hamman reportedly shot it as it ran away. Neither could be reached for comment.

The DNR is investigating the case for possible charges. Mountain lions are protected in Minnesota and killing one is a misdemeanor unless it poses an immediate threat to human life.

Though still rare, the shy cats are being seen with increasing frequency in Minnesota as young males spread out from a population of cougars that in the last 20 years has become established in the Black Hills and the Badlands in the Dakotas.

Earlier this year, another young male that had passed through Minnesota was killed on a road in Connecticut. DNA analysis showed it was the same cat that had been documented wandering for two years from the Black Hills, through Minnesota, Wisconsin and around the Great Lakes before dying under the wheels of a sport-utility vehicle 70 miles from New York City.

Lonely males

Like all such wandering young males, the one killed this week in the heart of corn country in Jackson County was probably looking for a mate, said David Mattson, a cougar expert with the U.S. Geological Survey in Arizona. Males are much more likely than females to travel beyond their home territory, he said, and have been seen in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Chicago.

But so far, none that have left the Dakotas appears to have succeeded in putting down roots, he said.

"They have not found females to consort with in the wasteland of cougardom," he said. "But as they head east, the odds increase they will run afoul of people somehow."

There are cases in Canada and western states of cougars attacking people. But as humans have adjusted to their growing numbers in the west, attacks have lessened to about four or five per year, experts say.

Still, many fear the predator cats, which were once common throughout the eastern part of the country. They disappeared from Minnesota in the late 1800s.

Dan Stark, a predator expert with the DNR, said that two cougars have been shot by law enforcement officers in Minnesota during the last decade or so and that both were escapees from private owners. Sightings of the wild cats are increasing, he said, but only a handful have been confirmed in recent years. Most sightings still turn out to be bobcats or even foxes, he said.

There have been enough reports, however, that the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has added a "Cougar Sightings" reporting system on its website,

Cougars vs. wolves

Chances are, cougars are far more common in Minnesota and other states than even their reported sightings would indicate, even in urban areas, Mattson said. He has been tracking about 100 cats in Arizona and Utah with GPS collars, and he said he's amazed at how closely they live to humans, livestock and pets without incident.

"Virtually all of them shared space with cattle and calves or used urban and suburban areas with domesticated animals," he said. As part of his research, he has studied 1,000 or more cougar kills and there was not one "documented kill of a domesticated animal of any shape or size. Which is not to say it doesn't happen -- it's not commonplace."

Their prey is almost always other wild animals -- usually deer or elk, he said. Humans have little to fear.

"They see the world as prey and not prey," he said. "And 99.9 percent of the lions don't see humans as prey."

Young, starving males probably pose the biggest risk, Mattson said, and the best tactic is to shout and back slowly away. Don't run, he said.

As the number of sightings has increased, wildlife biologists are studying where the lions might succeed in becoming established east of the Dakotas. A good spot, with lots of game and few people, is northern Minnesota, Mattson said. There, the biggest competition would be wolves.

"Wolves steal prey from cougars," he said. But even so, cougars would probably do fine in the North Woods because there is "plenty of cover and prey," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394