DNR: Mountain lion sightings more common, but still rareby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Duluth, Minn. — The mountain lion, one of North America's top predators is being sighted more often in Minnesota.
State Department of Natural Resources officials say mountain lions, also known as cougars and pumas, have turned up in increasing numbers in the past two years.
That wouldn't surprise Ron Brodigan, who has a vivid memory of his encounter a decade ago with what he is certain was a mountain lion - the fourth time he had seen one.
Brodigan would take late night jogs on the road past his place near Isabella, in the Superior National Forest. His running partner was Teddy, a big golden retriever.
"We headed out here to the driveway, and out to the road. She started acting kind of funny, and her hair was standing up on her back and on her neck," Brodigan said of his dog. "The two of us took off down the road, and we'd only gone a few yards, and she really reacted. And then all of the sudden there was a big 'yowl.' And, that was one of the scariest things in my life."
There, clearly visible in the glow of his driveway light, Brodigan said, was a mountain lion, right in the middle of the highway.
"It was just walking toward us, minding its own business, coming up the center line of the road," he said. "And a couple of seconds later we would have smacked right into it."
Once rare, cougar sightings are becoming much more commonplace.
The DNR has confirmed six reports in 13 months as mountain lions. They're turning up on trail-cams, like photos a few weeks ago north of Two Harbors. One animal was hit and killed in traffic near Bemidji last year. Another caught on a Champlin squad car camera last winter was then tracked wandering through Wisconsin.
Mountain lions range from the Canadian Yukon territories south to the South American Andes. In the United States they occupy mostly western states, reaching east to the Black Hills, which the cats re-populated in the 1990s.
Sightings have become so common in Minnesota that the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association is collecting cougar stories on their website.
Mark Johnson, the association's executive director, said deer hunters are concerned about the cougar sightings because they're after the same prey as mountain lions.
"With the sightings and with reports of sightings, people are a little apprehensive when they go into the woods about any time there's a big predator that potentially could rival you, or hunt you," Johnson said.
The website has received a few reports the organization felt were strong enough to share with state wildlife officials. But that doesn't mean each one was a mountain lion, said John Erb, a biologist with the DNR's Forest/Wildlife Research Group in Grand Rapids.
"They've gotten a ton of stuff reported, but only one that has information that you can sort of try and verify, and that was this one that's being worked on," Erb said of one report. "It's actually a series of three pictures of the same cat."
DNR officials say no evidence exists to prove that cougars have become resident in Minnesota. Some people mistake deer, dogs or bobcats as mountain lions. Erb said some actual mountain lions found in the state had been in captivity.
"We've had at least, I think five mountain lions captured or killed running around that we are either certain or highly likely were captive animals," he said. "One of them was de-clawed. Someone shot it on their front porch. It was looking into their house."
Where mountain lions are clearly established, Erb said, you see the evidence such as their kills. In the Black Hills, half a dozen mountain lions are killed by cars every year.
"So far the evidence is pretty strong that the people who think we have hundreds of them out there probably need a little dose of reality," he said.
Erb said the cats might eventually settle in Minnesota. There's plenty of deer to eat. But little is known how cougars interact with wolves -- or how they'd do in northern Minnesota's deep snow. Even if established, they might remain very scarce.
But with some 400,000 deer hunters in the woods during the annual firearms deer hunt, the number of mountain lion sightings may be on the verge of a new spike.
- All Things Considered, 11/12/2010, 5:24 p.m.