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This is the last confirmed sighting of a cougar in northern Minnesota. Jim Schubitzke's trail cam caught this cat near Floodwood. (Submitted photo)

Unconfirmed cougar sightings persist

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Park Rapids has been "cougarized."

That's the phenomenon Robert Rabasco assigns to the numerous alleged sightings of big cats in the Hubbard County region.

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Rabasco is assistant area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Park Rapids.

Despite more reported sightings, the DNR still "has no confirmations," Rabasco said.

"There is no photographic evidence, no prints, no dead cougar," he said.

The most recent sighting was Sept. 27 on the Headwaters County Club just north of Park Rapids. A foursome of women playing in a scramble cowered as a big cat roamed through the golf course.

"I don't remember if it was the eleventh or fourteenth hole," said summer resident Corky McKinnon. "But it was big."

But did it have a long rope-like tail?

"I don't remember," she said, still excited by the sighting a week later. "You'd have to ask the others."

The women told the tournament players when they finished their round and reported it to the greens keeper, who confirmed that he's seen tracks on the course. It was the talk of the country club - for the day.

Park Rapids is in good company. Cougar reports have been the talk of Chicago since a mountain lion was killed in April on the city's North Side.

Cougar sightings in Illinois have hit an all-time high, making it difficult for big cat experts to sort fact from fiction, urban myth from hoax.

Cougar experts say it's rare to see a cougar in the wild, much less in town. But in Hubbard County, where forested areas blend from city to country, residents have reported several sightings of large cats with rope-like tails.

"The public gloms on to a physical attribute" such as the tail, Rabasco said. Bobcats, by comparison, are considerably smaller and have short stubby tails.

"You won't see a bobcat go over 100 pounds," Rabasco said. He believes that tails notwithstanding, most of the sightings have been bobcats.

"We've picked up two road kill (bobcats) this year," he said.

Tom Ruzicka spotted two cougars in mid-August on Oak Point southeast of Cass Lake. He knows cougars. He helped raise two baby mountain lions that belonged to Moondance Ranch several years ago.

The Cougar Network tracks confirmed sightings of the big cats. Since 1990, only about 40 cougars have been confirmed in the Midwest. Those were mainly in Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.

But the Network indicates that habitats in the Black Hills and Rocky Mountains are becoming overcrowded, sending mountain lions eastward.

"Minnesota is adjacent to South Dakota with a documented population expanding in the Black Hills. It is also adjacent to North Dakota, which has a small breeding population in the western part of the state," the Network indicates on its Web site.

"Not surprisingly, The Cougar Network has documented a significant number of confirmations in Minnesota."

North Dakota now has a limited mountain lion season because of the prevalence of big cats in the western part of the state preying on cattle ranches.

Authorities speculate that the cougar shot in a Chicago back yard probably ventured from the Black Hills through Wisconsin, an odyssey of 1,000 miles.

Wildlife experts say it's not unusual for cougars to travel 50 or more miles a day.

And increasingly, despite the volume of calls coming in locally, authorities rely on hard evidence to confirm a sighting. That means finding paw prints, feces, fur or a carcass - in lieu of photographic evidence, or a live specimen.

The last cougar confirmed in this region of Minnesota was in 2007, north of Floodwood and southeast of Grand Rapids.

"We have lots of folks out in the fields lots of times and they're not seeing them," Rabasco insisted.

He believes with the number of sightings locals are reporting to each other, there should be a carcass.

Because, Rabasco said, eventually there's bound to be a car-cougar collision.

And that big cat interrupting the golf scramble?

" I think it was bigger than a bobcat," said Bonnie Larson, one of the golfers who witnessed the cat. "I've seen bobcats and they have shorter legs.

"It came between the men's and women's tee boxes on fourteen and within one or two jumps it had crossed the fairway and was up the hill. Then it turned around and looked at us. The four of us just stood there with our mouths open saying, 'Oh my God!'"

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