Tracking a cougar: DNA analysis shows cat’s path

Published 11:11 am Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Associated Press

ST. PAUL  — The same cougar that roamed through the Twin Cities in December traveled hundreds of miles in Wisconsin last winter, leaving tracks, scat and photographic evidence across six counties and coming within a few miles of the start of the American Birkebeiner ski race.

Using DNA analysis, biologists were able to conclude the same cat that left scat and tracks in Vadnais Heights in December crossed the St. Croix River and ended up in St. Croix and Dunn counties in Wisconsin.

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It’s believed to be the same cougar spotted in early December in Champlin and later in Stillwater.

The cat’s scat linked it to sightings in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, but also in northern Wisconsin.

In February, cougar droppings were collected near Cable, Wis., and DNA evidence concluded it was left by the Twin Cities cat, which tests showed was a male.

Using the DNA analysis, photos and tracks, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has created a map showing the cougar traveling eastward across the state, then turning north in Clark County and ending up in southern Bayfield County.

“It’s interesting that these animals roam such a large area,” said Adrian Wydeven, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “The first record we got on it was in a big urban area, and the last record was in a remote area. These animals apparently don’t avoid urban areas.”

Wydeven said tracks from the cat were found just a few miles west of the Birkebeiner race on Feb. 27, the same day as the race.

The DNA testing was done by a federal lab in Missoula, Mont. Biologists are still awaiting test results about the cat’s origin. The tests will point to whether the cat originated in South Dakota’s Black Hills or other Western states or whether it has genetic markers for South American cougars.

If the tests indicate the cat has South American genetics, it most likely is a captive cougar that was released or escaped.

But Wydeven said the cat’s remarkable travels across Minnesota and Wisconsin would suggest it was a wild cougar.

Dan Stark, a predator expert with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said young male cougars are known to roam far and wide in search of mates.

The new data “tells us … that these cats are covering a lot of distance in a short amount of time,” Stark said. “That leads us to believe that these are dispersing animals coming from the west and they are on the move in search of females. They will stay in a location for a while if there is prey, but unless they find a mate, they will keep roaming.”

Wydeven said a bus driver spotted a different cougar Dec. 18 in Wisconsin’s Price County and DNA analysis of small traces of its blood found in the snow concluded it was not a relative of the Twin Cities cougar, but it, too, was a male.

Wisconsin experts are also investigating several livestock attacks in Juneau County in May to determine whether the attacker was a cougar. It is among the numerous sightings and confirmed evidence of cougars roaming Wisconsin.

Since December, there have been 10 confirmed cougar or cougar-sign observations in western Wisconsin and one near Lena, in northeast Wisconsin. Most of the sightings and signs are believed to be the same cat that roamed through the Twin Cities.

Wisconsin DNR officials have begun working closely with cougar experts in the Black Hills, where one of the longest-running cougar-tracking projects is under way. Wisconsin biologists have received training in immobilizing the cats and fitting them with radio collars.

In March 2009, a cougar was treed by hunters west of Spooner, Wis., but attempts by biologists to capture and outfit it with a radio collar failed.

Stark said no confirmed sightings have been made in Minnesota since the Twin Cities sightings in December.

He said the Minnesota DNR is working on a protocol plan for handling cougar sightings in populated areas. The plan will address human-safety issues, he said.

“Their presence alone isn’t something we will respond to,” Stark said. “Our main position is if they aren’t causing trouble, we will leave them alone and let them go about their business.”