Cougar sightings creating a buzz in region
The young male cougar killed by a motorist south of Bemidji last weekend has ignited a collective "I told you so!" among the region's populace certain that mountain lions roam the countryside.
But local residents are also vilifying Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officers who, in the past, have been cautious in acknowledging a continuous presence of cougars or a breeding population in the state despite hundreds of unconfirmed sightings.
"We anticipated that," said Park Rapids DNR wildlife officer Rob Radasco. As assistant to Area Wildlife Supervisor Rob Naplin, Radasco and co-workers hear plenty of complaints and inquiries about cougars, so far all unsubstantiated.
"It's cognitive dissonance," Radasco said. "You see and believe what you want to believe."
Radasco says the DNR has never denied that occasional roaming cougars, usually juvenile males such as the 2-year-old that was killed in Bemidji, come through the area.
"I don't believe we've denied that either," he said, referring to whether breeding populations of cougars exist in Minnesota. "We just don't have the proof."
Nevertheless, Cougarmania, version 2009.0, is sweeping the region. Many of the Forum Communications-owned newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota posted the Bemidji cougar story on their Web sites and were immediately flooded with comments, some alleging a DNR coverup to hide a thriving population of mountain lions.
The Park Rapids DNR hears it all, acknowledged Radasco. There's no coverup.
"What we've said is we don't have any evidence of breeding populations and I don't think this cougar changed anything," Radasco said.
Steve Loch, a wildlife biologist from Babbitt who has immersed himself in a 15-year study of regional cougar sightings, agrees. Loch, a former DNR employee, spends most of his time debunking the numerous sightings and "photo shopped" images of cougars that circulate on the Internet, and even animals not remotely in the cougar family passed off as wild cats.
"This is not about DNR versus the people or the people versus the DNR," Loch said. "It is about what we currently know concerning lion occurrence in Minnesota.
"Many have said that the DNR denies cougar occurrence. Based on my experience, I certainly do not see it that way," he said.
"I'm aware of numerous DNR employees who have pushed the potential of lion occurrence much beyond the limits of the available data," he said.
Loch sends periodic reports to The Cougar Network, a scientifically-based online group that tracks confirmed sightings of cougars in the United States.
Loch believes, based on DNA testing, that only three "verified" wild cougars have definitively been confirmed as having roamed through the state in the last 15 years. That includes the Bemidji cougar.
Most wander this way from the Black Hills of South Dakota or North Dakota's Badlands.
All have been young males.
"When they (cougars) are densely populated in certain areas, the Dakotas, Montana, etc., the young males will get pushed" out of the prides, Radasco said. "That's what you see. You see them roaming long distances when they're pushed out of their preferred home range."
He said young males, in dense populations of large cats, roam in search of females and new territory.
"Older males get established with females or at least in the breeding pecking order and they're good to go, but the young males are displaced," Radasco said, pointing out that he is not a cougar expert.
Loch said it supports his contention that the state may not have a breeding population - lack of females.
"To base a population (in the state) you have to have a presence (more permanent than roamers), some females, females that reproduce and reproduction that persists over time," Loch maintains.
So far there's no proof any of those factors exist, he says.
"Put it this way," Radasco said. "Last summer we had a number of reports. Then we sent hundreds of thousands of deer hunters out into the woods and nobody encounters one. It leads you to the conclusion they're probably not there."
If there was a population of cougars, there would be more depredation, Radasco believes: more dead deer, the cat's primary diet, and more dead animals and livestock overall.
"There are zero confirmed cases of anyone or any property being damaged," he said.
Radasco said the Park Rapids DNR office frequently gets photos taken from the dozens of trail cameras out in the woods, asking if a camera has captured a mountain lion. None of the pictures thus far have been of cougars, although many feature other wildlife such as foxes and bobcats on the grainy pictures.
The public is equally concerned about wolves, bears, bobcats and other wildlife, he said.
Loch said the public can help wildlife officials confirm or deny rumors of big cats, if suspicious paw prints can be reported quickly. That gives wildlife experts time to track the animal, check for scat, fur or other empirical evidence, and perform the necessary DNA tests.
In the past, most of the people who claim large cat encounters have instead reported them to the media.
Despite the Web comments on this latest cougar, the state agency will proceed methodically. A necropsy is being performed on the Bemidji cat and DNA may actually be able to trace the animal's origins if it is determined to be wild, Loch said.
"I don't believe one roaming male hit by a car proves anything except that there's one roaming male that got hit by a car," Radasco said.