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Cougars recolonizing Midwest, one male at a time

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Fergus Falls cougar
The Department of Natural Resources verfied this trail camera photograph of a cougar, taken in the fall last year northeast of Fergus Falls, Minn.
Courtesy of Tony Rondeau

You may remember a couple of years ago, a lot of us were following reports of a cougar making its way around the northern Twin Cities suburbs.

That adventurous cat eventually made it all the way to Connecticut, where it was killed by a car.

Now, a report from the University of Minnesota published in The Journal of Wildlife Management says that cougars, or mountain lions, like that one are slowly expanding their range eastward returning to areas where they were killed off a century ago.

More on cougars:
• Research: Cougars recolonizing Midwest
• Map: Minn. Deer Hunters Assoc. cougar sightings
• DNR: Cougars in Minnesota

Cougars once lived across most of the country, but have long since been pushed into mountainous hideouts.  Now, they're making a comeback. Many of them roam from the Black Hills of South Dakota, where at least 220 of the animals live.

U of M doctoral student Michelle LaRue has been compiling confirmed sightings and physical evidence collected by wildlife agencies and a non-profit group called the Cougar Network.

LaRue found 178 cougar confirmations in the Midwest, with numbers steadily increasing over the last 20 years. That may not sound like a lot of sightings, but LaRue says the team was very particular about the evidence it accepted.

Michelle LaRue
Michelle LaRue, research fellow and PhD student at Polar Geospatial Center at University of Minnesota, is the primary author of a new report tracing the re-emergence of cougar populations in the Midwest.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"It had to be either a carcass, photo, video, track, or scat of an actual animal," she said.

Researchers also accepted sightings by trained wildlife biologists. Apparently, many animals are easily mistaken for a cougar.

Last year, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association asked members to send in reports and photographs from trail cameras of cougars. (View the map.)

The vast majority of the photos were decidedly something else, said Mark Johnson, the group's executive director.

"Some were very definitely a house cat or a fox, or a bobcat. There was one that was walking behind a tree but you could tell it was a yellow lab," Johnson said.

But last fall, Tony Rondeau of Fergus Falls captured a cougar on his trail camera.

"Checked the camera and there was a cougar sighting on it, it was like seven o'clock in the evening — about the time a person would be getting out of their deer stand — and it walked within, I would guess, 18 yards of my archery deer stand," Rondeau said.

Taking measurements
Researcher Chuck Anderson and Greg Arthur of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department measureme the foreleg of a tagged and sedated cougar in southeast Wyoming sometime between 1999 and 2003.
Photo courtesy of Chuck Anderson

Rondeau looked for tracks, hair and scat, but didn't find anything. However, DNR wildlife officials confirmed that the critter on his camera was a cougar.

The U of M study suggests people may need to get used to having them around, eventually. The adventurous animals, like the one that explored all the way to Connecticut two years ago, are young males. Females don't travel as far.

But researcher LaRue says breeding populations have been confirmed in western North Dakota and western Nebraska.

LaRue says cougars need about the same amount of space as a wolf pack, — about 80 square miles — to find prey. Cougars hunt mostly deer and elk, although they will eat smaller animals as well.  Male cougars will tolerate only a couple of females, but no other males in their territory.

LaRue wants state wildlife agencies to help prepare people to share land with cougars, and to sort out the myths from scientific fact. She said even out west, it is very rare for a cougar to attack a person.

"If there happened to be a cougar in your vicinity, it would see before you saw it and it would run before it saw you," LaRue said.

She said that a cougar would not consider humans as prey "unless it was really, really hungry."

Given Minnesota's plentiful white-tailed deer population here in Minnesota, LaRue said that cougars should be well fed.

As far as Rondeau is concerned, it's exciting to have a big predator around, and he says it's time we learned to live with them.

"Just like bear, in bear country, and there are timber wolves around, not that far away from here and people are living with them and we'll have a season on them," Rondeau said. "It's just part of the natural scheme, I don't know why we'd need to be afraid of that."