Confirmed cougar sightings are becoming more frequent in Minnesota, but evidence suggests the large cats are most likely rare visitors to the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The recent shooting of a cougar in southwestern Minnesota, along with verified observations of the big cats in the state, are raising awareness of cougars in the public and media.
"Within the past several years, we have been able to verify observations of individual cougars within our state," said Dan Stark, DNR large carnivore specialist. "Although rare, we have verifiable evidence such as trail camera photos, tracks and scat, and on occasion, dead cougars."
Since 2007, the DNR has confirmed 14 cougar sightings. Eleven have been from trail cameras or video. One was road killed, one was found dead and one was shot. Dozens of other, unconfirmed sightings have also been reported.
Prior to European settlement, cougars, also known as mountain lions or pumas, ranged across all lower 48 states. Their present-day range is significantly smaller. Confirmed breeding populations are recognized by state game departments in 14 western states. The closest populations are in the western Dakotas, and the only population east of the Mississippi River is in Florida..
Why might cougars show up in Minnesota? Cougars are solitary, roaming animals, and as young males reach maturity, they begin to look for new territory and will travel considerable distances. The timing of many of Minnesota's verified cougar sightings (mid- 2000's and forward) is not unexpected given the somewhat rapid increase in the cougar population in the western Dakotas that began in the mid-1990s. Extensive research in the Black Hills has documented the changing cougar dynamics that typically lead to increased dispersal of young males.
DNA analysis from cougars in Minnesota and other Midwestern states, along with cougar scat and hair found here, indicates most of the animals are male likely coming from the Black Hills population in South Dakota and western North Dakota. However, given their long dispersal capabilities, animals could show up from numerous other locations in the western U.S. as well.
In some cases, cougars roaming through Minnesota are leaving a remarkable record. Scientists were recently able to document and track a male cougar via its DNA, through the Twin Cities and three different places in Wisconsin before the same cat was hit by a car and killed earlier this year in Connecticut. The cat was killed 18 months after it was detected in Minnesota.
The cougar recently shot in Jackson County was a 125-pound male, estimated to be one to three years old. The DNR will send DNA samples from the cat to a lab in Montana so more can be learned about it
Stark said there have been no wild females cougars documented in Minnesota, and that annual carnivore tracking surveys by the DNR, which includes scent-post and winter tracking surveys, have recorded no evidence to suggest the possibility of a resident population of cougars in the state. Although verifications have increased, evidence of cougars remains extremely rare. In contrast, in Florida, where an estimated cougar population of only 100-150 animals reside, an average of 23 cougar deaths (14 car-kills) are documented each year.
Although some cougar sightings in Minnesota are accurately identified, many observations from trail cameras and tracks turn out to be cases of mistaken identity. Bobcats, house cats, coyotes, wolves, fishers and light colored dogs have all been mistaken as cougars.
A cougar will range in length from four to six feet, with a head that appears small in relation to the body. The body is tan except for dark face markings and tail tip. The tail will be nearly as long as the body.
Human encounters with cougars are extremely rare. Even in California, which has a population of more than 5,000 of the big cats, a person is 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a cougar. If an encounter does take place, stay calm, face the animal, make yourself appear large by opening your coat or putting your hands above your head, and speak in a loud voice. Most cougars will avoid confrontation.
Cougars are protected animals in Minnesota. State statute makes it illegal for a citizen to kill a cougar in most circumstances. Public safety officials are authorized to kill a cougar to protect public safety. If a cougar poses an immediate threat to public safety, contact a DNR conservation office or local law enforcement person as soon as possible.