“Finally, the DNR admits there are cougars in Wisconsin!” How many times has that been said? Actually the Wisconsin DNR has always been keenly interested in any big cat sightings in the state, according to recently retired DNR Mammalian/Ecologist/Conservation Biologist Adrian Wydeven.
The former Head Wolf Recovery Program Biologist was also responsible to track down (pun intended) any reports of sightings of rare species like the cougar in Wisconsin. Recently, at the Treehaven Outdoor Education Center, Wydeven presented “Cougars in Wisconsin,” an overview of the animal that once roamed the state, but has been gone from the landscape since the early 1900's.
Reports of “Puma Concolor, panther, catamount, mountain lion or mishibijn (Ojibwa), started trickling in to the DNR during the early '90s. The large tawny colored cat is one of three species native to the state, with only bobcats having a breeding population. Along with the cougar, Canada lynx have also been known to be reported here.
Prior to 1920, the 100-150 pound cats roamed primarily in the southern 2/3rds of the state in habitat more suited than the thick forest to the north. While males typically can have a range of 150 square miles, females stay much closer to home, covering only 64 sq. miles. Their primary prey are deer, but they will also take elk (out west) and smaller game like rabbits, beaver and raccoons.
Wydeven stated that although there had been earlier sightings, probably escaped captive animals, it wasn't until 2008 when DNR evidence confirmed a cougar of Black Hills (SD) origin near Milton, WI. A trapper followed tracks and discovered the cat in a barn. Upon retreating it suffered a injury providing blood along hair samples which was collected for DNA anylasis. That report quickly progressed from “possible” to “probable” to confirmed. Unfortunately, the cougar ultimately ventured into Illinois, possibly following the Chicago River corridor and was shot by police in the city. A year later in March of 2009, a cougar was treed near Spooner. Attempts were made to capture and collar it, but failed. During the same year another was caught on a game cam near Eau Claire in Dunn county.
Although the DNR has been accused of covering up reports of populations, including cubs or kittens (which would indicate a breeding population), Wydeven said those claims would run counter to biologists desire to know more about the big cats in the state. “Why would we hide it?” Wydeven asked. “We try and be very respectful of submitted observations.” Adding “We also strive to educate the public by posting confirmed observations on the DNR website.” "We take citizen observations seriously and value their input. They are our eyes and ears for some of the most interesting animal experiences," he said. "Interestingly, the epicenter of reported observations is the Rhinelander area." he commented when projecting a map of the state with pin points of sightings.
Aside from habitat, the bigger challenge of cougars will be living with people. When asked if there had been discussion on bringing females here to start a breeding population, Wydeven flatly said “No.” While the public would probably be okay with the species naturally returning, he doesn't see the same opinion if they were introduced. Evidence of that mindset is seen in angry accusations that wolves were “planted” in the state by the DNR, when in fact, they returned on their own from Minnesota. The state DNR has no management plans currently for cougar and they are protected in Wisconsin.
Peak sightings generally occur in summer for cougars. Although disappointing for many, some of these observations are discovered upon investigation to be false. Evidence of mistaken identity was presented by Wydeven (and can also be found on the DNR's rare animal web page). Many times these images are of bobcats. “Black panthers” (no black phases have been documented in North America) have proven to be other species like fishers while even coyotes with mange can be cougar look a-likes in photos. Sometimes “Cougars” caught on camera have even turned out to be domestic cats when there is no visual clues to compare relative size to at a distance. Others are hoaxes-from taxidermy mounted specimens to internet fodder. Photos of multiple mountain lions, cougars on someones porch and cats stalking a hunter-are attributed to multiple locations in the state over a period of years. They almost always are bogus.
Investigated and confirmed cases still continue. In 2010, a game cam picture of a male was taken in Clark County and eventually traveled to Bayfield county. It appears to be the same animal sighted in eastern Minnesota and Dunn county where DNA evidence was obtained. That cougar was killed in 2011 in Connecticut, a straight line distance of 1059 miles, by a car. Since cats don't like to cross long distances of water, Wydeven theorizes the animal traveled through the UP, crossing into Ontario and eventually through New York state- an amazing journey. There have even been photographs of collared cougars, again, most likely of South Dakota origin. In 2013, at least three cougars were confirmed in the state, all possibly the same animal. This past year an unusually clear image was captured in Lincoln County in August and another in September near Marinette.
With the incredible travels of some of these dispersing males to the Upper midwest states and as far as Connecticut, one wonders how soon viable populations could re-appear. In speaking to Wisconsin Public Radio in 2010 Wydeven expressed “We believe cougars may eventually reestablish in Wisconsin. We have habitat that’s suitable. Deer is their main food source. There’s source population in the Blacks Hills of South Dakota and we’re within the dispersal range of those.” He goes on to add, “ It’s one of the things as an agency we want to be on top of, that when cougars start to reestablish in the state, we want to be able to detect them and determine there are cougars and document their presence and monitor their populations.”
It's generally agreed that at some point in the future, cougars could very well return and reproduce in Wisconsin, but it will be a long road back. With females keeping a small range from where they were born, it could take decades for them to venture across South Dakota and Minnesota into suitable territory here. But some have-at least males so far. "It demonstrates that these large carnivores can return to areas where they had once existed, if they're given adequate protection," Wydeven told LiveScience in 2011. Indeed, and as with the recent reinstatement of the grey wolf under the endangered species act, heated arguments will be made on both sides on whether a species, once at home here , will garner that protection and return to its home.
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