By GLEN SCHMITT
St. Cloud Times
ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Are there more cougars in Minnesota than one might think?
An increase in sightings over the past few years could leave one to believe that there is, but there isn't much evidence that supports the big cats taking up residency in the state.
Just this fall there were four confirmed cougar sightings in the state. One near Little Falls, where a sheriff caught sight of a cougar, and two trail camera pictures, one from Otter Tail County and another in the Hoyt Lakes area, that confirmed cougars were present.
The fourth occurred in southwest Minnesota not far from the Iowa border. In that instance a cougar was apparently shot, which is illegal in the state, and that case remains under investigation.
According to Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist with the Department of Natural Resources, there have been 14 confirmed cougar sightings in Minnesota since 2007. Most of them have shown up on trail camera photos or video, one was hit by a car, and another was found dead.
Stark said he's also received dozens of other unconfirmed cougar sightings in recent years. But despite the increase in cougar sightings, he doesn't believe Minnesota is currently home to a breeding population of cougars.
"We get a couple dozen reports each year from people that spot cougars, but not all of them are confirmed with pictures, tracks, or scat," Stark said. "But we just don't have the evidence showing that we have a resident population and we believe that most are transient animals moving through the state from other areas."
Cougars, also known as mountain lions or pumas, roamed all across the lower 48 states before European settlement. That range is much smaller today with established populations recognized in 14 western states. The closest breeding populations to Minnesota are found in the Dakotas.
It's likely those cougars from western North Dakota and South Dakota are the cats that venture through Minnesota. For example, the Black Hills in South Dakota have become saturated with cougars, and since the cats are territorial Stark says they'll move to find space as well as breeding partners.
"Cougars are solitary animals that roam and as young males reach maturity they begin to look for new territory and will travel considerable distances to find it," Stark said. "DNA analysis, scat and hair samples from cougars found in Minnesota indicate that most are from the Black Hills and western North Dakota."
Most of the cougars sampled in Minnesota also have been males. In fact, there have been no wild female cougars documented in the state. The couple of females found were determined to be captive through DNA testing.
Stark also has no evidence of multiple cougars being seen on trail cameras or through other random sightings.
A lack of more than one cougar at a time is a good indication that breeding pairs in the state aren't likely.
Annual carnivore tracking surveys conducted by the DNR, which includes scent-post and winter tracking surveys, have recorded no evidence to suggest the possibility of a resident cougar population in the state.
"If these animals were more prevalent than we think, we'd also see more of them hit by vehicles," Stark said. "In the area around the Black Hills, 20 to 25 cougars are killed by cars every year and we're not seeing that."
In addition, there hasn't been any livestock depredation or documented conflicts between cougars and humans in Minnesota. Where populations are established, that's not the case.
But the evidence that shows no wild female cougars have shown up in Minnesota is the best indicator that the cats aren't establishing themselves here. Despite the fact that sightings have increased in recent years, Stark is confident that there isn't a resident population being built.
He firmly believes that the cougars seen in Minnesota are simply moving through the state.
Many of them have been spotted in the fall when the breeding season is in high gear. Young, male cougars will travel hundreds of miles in search of new territory and a mate.
In some cases, cougars roaming through Minnesota have left an amazing trail. Earlier this year, scientists were able to document and track a male cougar through its DNA.
This particular cougar was seen in the Twin Cities metro area and three different locations in Wisconsin between 2009 and 2010. It was eventually hit by a car and killed this past June in Connecticut.
DNA tests showed that the 140-pound male cougar had walked more than 1,500 miles east from the Black Hills. Scat and hair samples found in Minnesota and Wisconsin confirmed it was the same cougar.
It was the longest journey ever recorded for a cougar and the first time a wild cougar had been documented in Connecticut in more than 100 years.
"For a cougar to travel that far is extraordinary and rare," Stark said. "While males will roam, that distance was nearly double anything previously confirmed by a dispersed cougar."
Stark added that the cougar shot in Jackson County in November was a 125-pound male estimated to be one to three years old. DNA samples have been sent to a lab in Montana, but it has not yet been determined where the cat came from.
Although Stark said there's enough evidence to support that cougars are not currently taking up residency and breeding in Minnesota, he also feels that the possibility exists for that to change in the future.
Even though cougars prefer rough, remote terrain there is enough suitable habitat in the state for cougars to become established, even if it's on a limited basis.
In addition, a robust deer population will attract and hold cougars.
He said there's enough prey available in several areas of the state to hold cougars.
But until females start showing up, cougars will only continue to use Minnesota as a pass-through area: a state they travel through as they leave more highly populated areas of the country in search of new territory and females to mate with.
"Some spend more time in the state than others, but until a female shows up they won't stay," Stark said.
"It's possible and might only be a matter of time, but we have nothing to support a resident population at this point."
——— Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)