On the rise, but still rare

This photo from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources shows a cougar that was shot and killed in a rural area of Jackson County in southwestern Minnesota. -- Herald file photo

14 cougar sightings confirmed since ‘07

Confirmed cougar sightings are becoming more frequent in Minnesota, but evidence suggests the large cats are most likely rare visitors to the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The recent shooting of a cougar in southwestern Minnesota — along with verified observations of the big cats in the state — are raising awareness of cougars.

“Within the past several years, we have been able to verify observations of individual cougars within our state,” said Dan Stark, DNR large carnivore specialist. “Although rare, we have verifiable evidence such as trail camera photos, tracks and scat, and on occasion, dead cougars.”

Since 2007, the DNR has confirmed 14 cougar sightings. Eleven have been from trail cameras or video. One was road killed, one was found dead and one was shot. Dozens of other, unconfirmed sightings have also been reported, including two several miles west of Austin on separate properties in May and June of this year.

Why might cougars show up in Minnesota?

Cougars are solitary, roaming animals, and as young males reach maturity, they begin to look for new territory and will travel considerable distances, according to the DNR. Extensive research in the Black Hills has documented the changing cougar dynamics that typically lead to increased dispersal of young males, as the population in that area is estimated to be increasing, too. DNA analysis from cougars in Minnesota and other Midwestern states, along with cougar scat and hair findings, indicates most of the animals are male, likely coming from the Black Hills population in South Dakota and western North Dakota. However, given their long dispersal capabilities, animals could show up from numerous other locations in the western U.S. as well.

In some cases, cougars roaming through Minnesota are leaving a remarkable record. Scientists were recently able to document and track a male cougar — via its DNA — through the Twin Cities and three different places in Wisconsin before the same cat was hit by a car and killed earlier this year in Connecticut. The cat was killed 18 months after it was detected in Minnesota.

The cougar recently shot in Jackson County was a 125-pound male, estimated to be 1 to 3 years old. The DNR will send DNA samples from the cat to a lab in Montana.

Stark said there have been no wild female cougars documented in Minnesota, and that annual carnivore tracking surveys by the DNR — which includes scent-post and winter tracking surveys — have recorded no evidence to suggest the possibility of a resident population of cougars in Minnesota. Although verifications have increased, evidence of cougars remains rare. In contrast, in Florida, where an estimated cougar population of 100 to 150 animals reside, an average of 23 cougar deaths (14 car-kills) are documented each year.

Some cougar sightings in Minnesota are accurately identified, but many observations from trail cameras and tracks turn out to be cases of mistaken identity. Bobcats, house cats, coyotes, wolves, fishers and light-colored dogs have all been mistaken as cougars, according to the DNR.

A cougar will range in length from four to six feet, with a head that appears small in relation to the body. The body is tan, except for dark face markings and tail tip. The tail will be nearly as long as the body.

If anyone encounters a cougar, he or she should stay calm, face the animal, try to appear large by opening a coat or putting hands above head and speaking in a loud voice. Most cougars will avoid confrontation.

Cougars are protected animals in Minnesota. State statute makes it illegal for a citizen to kill a cougar in most circumstances, although public safety officials are authorized to kill a cougar to protect the public. If a cougar poses an immediate threat to public safety, contact a DNR conservation office or local law enforcement person as soon as possible.

The DNR has recently updated its cougar information on its website. Visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/cougar/index.html.

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