Wisconsin Uses DNA to Confirm 4 Cougars in State During Past 2 Years
A few drops of blood, preserved by an alert warden, proves that while one male cougar was tracking through St. Croix and Dunn counties this past December, another male cougar was moving near the Flambeau River, 125 miles to the north.
This cougar, crossing a road, was spotted by a female bus driver east of Park Falls. Warden Dan Michels responded and followed the animal's tracks into a cedar swamp where he spotted tiny blood drops behind the cougar's tracks. He collected them in a test tube, froze the contents and submitted them for DNA analysis.
No other sightings of a cougar in that vicinity were reported, and no more evidence was found. Still, the science is irrefutable. The bus driver had seen a wild North American cougar, a male.
The discovery points to just one of the challenges faced by Department of Natural Resources wildlife officials during the past two and a half years as they deal with the first confirmed cougars in Wisconsin since the last cougar native to the state was killed in or around 1908.
A series of incidents in Juneau County during the past several months has proven especially problematic. In May, a hunter reported seeing a cougar attacking a heifer. The cow had to be put down due to injuries. Later, after several sheep were attacked by an animal and killed, and instances of injured horses were reported on two different farms, it was widely assumed to be the work of the same animal, believed to be a cougar.
Later, the hunter was interviewed by a DNR biologist and his descriptions, by his own admission, fall short of a positive identification. The predator he saw was covered with mud and appeared to be less than half the size and length of a young adult cougar.
In Wisconsin, Wildlife Services (WS) – part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – responds to reports of livestock depredations under a contract with the DNR. WS agents are skilled at responding to predation by other predators, such as bear and wolf, and at trapping predators when necessary. However, despite an ongoing effort by WS and DNR to capture any predator responsible for these animal attacks in Juneau County, none has been located. None have been captured on night cameras at bait sites or by tracking dogs. At this time, no prints that can be definitely attributed to a cougar have been found, no blood, no hair, no scat and no urine. Hunting dogs have failed to pick up a trail.
Faced with this mystery, DNR officials collected all the reports, photographs and other evidence from the Juneau County investigations and submitted them to a panel of four internationally recognized cougar experts through a scientific organization called the Cougar Network.
None of these experts could confirm the presence of a cougar, based on evidence collected so far. The experts acknowledged that their opinions were based on reports, and not on field investigations.
DNR officials, acting on reports from Juneau County residents, including unconfirmed sightings, are proceeding on the belief that the presence of a cougar is possible. Efforts to trap or to locate and kill the animal causing these injuries will continue.
In the meantime, the DNR has formed a cougar working group that includes a Wildlife Services supervisor and a Conservation Congress delegate from Juneau County. The group is collecting information from cougar experts elsewhere and is preparing a detailed protocol for how the DNR will respond to cougar sightings in the future.
DNR biologists have been sent to the Black Hills for hands-on training with cougars, taking part in operations to immobilize cougars and fit them with radio collars. The top cougar biologist from the Black Hills, John Kanta, came to Wisconsin two weeks ago to assist Wisconsin’s cougar working group. He calls these elusive cats mountain lions.
"We've never had anyone fatally attacked by a mountain lion," Kanta said. "Your chance of even seeing a mountain lion, in mountain lion country, is a million to one."
The Wisconsin group will not be working on a cougar management plan. The cougars detected so far have been young males seeking new territory. They probably originated in the Black Hills of South Dakota. No females have been detected in Wisconsin and there is no evidence of a breeding population.
Female cougars tend to migrate no more than a couple hundred miles. Breeding populations east of the Black Hills would have to be established, scientists believe, before female cougars could be expected to arrive in Wisconsin, a process that could take 10 or more years, if it happens at all.
In the meantime, the DNR will continue to take all reports of cougar attacks on livestock seriously and to work with Wildlife Services to investigate any reports.
DNR officials emphasized that citizen observations are critical to this effort and they are asking landowners and outdoor enthusiasts to become familiar with the "rare mammal observation form" on the DNR's website. This and much more can be found by typing "cougar" into the search box on the home page.
Although the DNR has been collecting reports of possible cougar observations since 1991, biologists were never able to confirm the presence of a cougar, or to find a single decent cougar track in the state, until January 2008 when a cougar observation near Milton was confirmed by prints and DNA tests of a blood sample. That cougar was killed by Chicago police in April 2008.
In March 2009, a cougar was treed by hunters just west of Spooner. Attempts to capture the cougar were unsuccessful and it disappeared, its fate a mystery. In late May 2009, a Pepin County farmer discovered tracks near his livestock pen and Wydeven confirmed they belonged to a large cat.
Then in December, a cougar that likely crossed the frozen St. Croix River from Minnesota moved through St. Croix, Dunn (and probably Eau Claire and Clark counties) where tracks show it turning north. Tests reveal this same cougar, now dubbed the "Twin Cities cougar," was tracked near Cable in Bayfield County in February.
Since this cat appeared in December, there have been more than 10 confirmed cougar or cougar sign observations in western Wisconsin and one near Lena in northeast Wisconsin. A half dozen of these are believed to be the Twin Cities cougar.
Using DNA tests processed by the federal Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana, DNR biologists have been able to confirm the presence of four individual cougars in Wisconsin, all males, counting the one killed in Chicago. Whether these four account for all the observations is not known.
One thing is clear – cougars have proven to be very adept at covering large distances in Wisconsin without being noticed. DNR biologists say these cougars tend to move 5 to 7 miles a day. A DNR biologist tracking the cougar in Dunn County reported it stopped in one area for at least two days after killing and caching a fawn buck, returning at least once to continue its meal.