Why Not Cougars?
By Greg Breining
For years Minnesotans have made a hobby of spotting evidence of cougars. Big round footprints. A scream in the night. A blur of tawny fur followed by a long, ropy tail. I follow these reports eagerly, hopeful that an animal that once roamed from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego might someday return in numbers to Minnesota, the resurrected spirit of some vanished wilderness.
So when photos of a cougar, taken just a dozen miles from downtown Minneapolis, turned up in at least three newspapers, I rushed down to meet the man who owned the camera, Kerry Kammann, a 31-year jack-of-all-trades with Port Cargill in Savage. An amiable sort with an open demeanor, Kammann immediately handed me a list he’d downloaded from the Internet. It was titled, "What to do if you see a mean cougar." Among the helpful tips: "Do not crouch down or bend over."
I struggled to imagine how such a danger might arise. An ill-advised attempt to sneak away? Kerry, there’s the cougar. Should we bend over?
Kammann drove us down a muddy road that runs along a dike in the river bottoms, not 200 yards from the whirring ventilation fans of the Cargill storage bins, where grain is kept before it is loaded onto barge tows wending up the navigable portion of the Minnesota River. On either side were ponds and marshes and bottomland hardwoods. Crows flapped about. Ducks and geese swam in a pond. The broad river valley harbors turkeys, raccoons, coyotes, possums, and an abundance of deer, Kammann said. And that, apparently, is not all.
When Kammann came to work April 1, rumors flitted about like songbirds: Someone in the fertilizer division had seen a cougar. That night it snowed. The next day, Kammann’s buddy, Kenny Beahan, drove back from lunch along the dike road. "And he looked down here as he’s driving by, and he saw a dead deer."
At this point in his story, Kammann stopped the car and pointed out the window. I looked down at a pile of hide and bones, laying flat on the ground like an old baseball mitt. "Is that the carcass right there?" I asked.
"That’s the carcass right there."
Beahan raced back to find Kammann, and the two men slipped and slid down the embankment to investigate. "There were lion prints all over the place. About that big around, like a Burger King Whopper. They were huge. There was blood. They had had a tussle. Pretty much killed it right there. There were puncture marks in the back and the throat and the face." The carcass, not yet stiff, still oozed blood. The men, both deer hunters, figured a cougar killed it that morning.
Kammann and I scrambled down a game trail to the carcass. Kammann pointed out a second carcass, about 40 feet away. He and Beahan figured it was killed perhaps 10 days before the fresh carcass.
"We looked him over and thought, this is pretty cool. My dad was a professional photographer, he was a news photographer. So it’s clicking in my head how can I get a picture of this thing, ’cause you know darn well it’s coming back."
After work, Kammann raced to a sporting goods store and bought a remote camera triggered by an infrared motion detector. He came back that night and strapped the camera to a tree near the deer. The next morning, he noticed several pictures had been taken. He rushed the mostly unexposed film to a photo finisher. That night after work, he excitedly tore open the envelope and pulled out the prints. There was no mistaking the lean, muscular animal poised near the carcass. Mountain lion, puma, panther, catamount, Felis concolor. In other words, a cougar. "It was pretty cool," Kammann said.
Wednesday night, something interfered with the camera, causing the photos to be overexposed. Still, Kammann could make out the outline of the big cat, which had returned to chew on the right shoulder of the carcass. He moved the camera to a different tree, and the cat showed up the next night too. "My dad would have been proud of me," Kammann said. "I’ve got five or six nice pictures. Everybody’s pretty excited."
As Kammann and I circled the carcass looking for footprints or scat, I pointed out a scratch on a tree trunk, a deep abrasion of the bark nearly 2 feet long. And then another, beginning about 4 feet high and running nearly to the ground. I asked Kammann if he had torn up the tree in putting up the camera. He said he hadn’t. "That’s from a cat," I said. I was excited too.
I asked Bill Berg, the recently retired DNR biologist who spent years compiling cougar sightings throughout the state, what he thought of the photos. "Not really surprised," he said. "I think it’s great he got the pictures. I think the big question is—is it a wild cat or somebody’s domestic escaped or released animal? We think cats in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin are continually on the move. Western cat people and we both believe these are young dispersing animals."
By nature, biologists are skeptical of cougar sightings. Even if the evidence is tangible—such as the 54-pound female shot on a front porch near Big Sandy Lake last summer—officials are likely to equivocate. Escaped "pets," they suggest. Or wild cats that are just dispersing or "passing through." Passing through to where? I’ve wondered. From Montana to Florida? The Black Hills to Wisconsin Dells?
Cougars may be said to be passing through no matter where they live. Home ranges of females may take up an entire township (36 square miles to you city dwellers). A male may cover 10 times that area at a rate of 25 miles a day. Without neighboring cats to help define territories, a cougar might hew to no natural orbit at all, but simply wrench free of gravity and spin off into eternity, never to return.
The real definition of a resident population comes down to breeding. Are cougars finding mates and reproducing? In Minnesota, young cougars have shown up over the years. The Big Sandy cat had two cubs, though whether those cats were really wild has never been settled. An anonymous caller said they were pets, Berg said. "But I don’t think a call from a bar is what you would call reliable evidence." A female cougar was killed by a car near Malmo, and for days afterward residents spotted a cub in the vicinity. A female sighted with twins near Meadowlands wandered northward and eventually disappeared. Are the few births we know about enough to sustain a population? That is a tough question to answer when animals are highly dispersed and nearly impossible to count.
Wishful thinkers—and I’m one—take comfort in this line of reasoning: Why not cougars in Minnesota? Until they were trapped, poisoned, and shot through eastern and middle North America, cougars were the most adaptable and widespread carnivore in the hemisphere. They roamed coast to coast, from 60 degrees north latitude to 50 degrees south, from the sea-level Everglades to 18,000 feet in the Andes. They lived in arid desert, alpine conifers, northern woodlands, and tropical rainforest. They ranged through Minnesota, though perhaps never in abundance. Of course, Minnesota probably never had as many deer as it does now.
So why not now, in a forested valley that stretches from St. Paul to Mankato? The 25 deer typical of a single square mile would feed a cougar for a year. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge comprises 14,000 acres. State park land in the valley accounts for nearly 9,000 more. Toss in several thousand additional acres of undeveloped lots, industrial land, and farmland, and you have territory enough to harbor several cougars, according to studies of population densities throughout North America. And if cougars can survive in the vicinity of Scott County, 10th fastest-growing county in the nation, why not scattered elsewhere in the lesser settled parts of the state where deer are also abundant?
I put that question to L. David Mech, the world-renowned wolf biologist. No good reason, he said. They lived here once. They could do so again. They simply need to make their way back in sufficient numbers to find mates to breed, he said. "If they’ve got the food, if one—or two—come through, they could establish a population."
"Should we be trucking a half dozen of them in?" I asked. I was joking.
"Oh, I’d love it."
He was joking too. Still, published photos of the cougar so excited Mech he raced down to Port Cargill after an overnight snow to look for tracks, only to be deterred by No Trespassing signs. Despite the photos, a scientist’s skepticism prevents Mech from believing entirely that a breeding population exists in the state. Mostly, he wonders why with plenty of food and cover, cougars don’t proliferate. Why don’t we see more of them? He can only conclude there is no breeding population. "Right now I sure wouldn’t bet there’s a breeding population. It may be my skepticism from years past. I may be more skeptical than most."
Mech grew up in New York state a half century ago, a time when much large wildlife was at low ebb, slaughtered by early settlers, not yet restored by scientific game management or protected through endangered species laws. Despite this dearth of wild things, he heard frequent reports of big cats, and not of mere cougars, but of black panthers. "There is some sort of mystical phenomenon that people want to see these things," Mech said.
Indeed, something about big cats—in their frightening stealth, their deadly speed, their rippling musculature—calls out to be recognized, whether it is the cougar in America, the jaguar in the Amazon, or the tiger in China. By their nature, they explore the deep defile between faith and science, the yawning chasm between what we know and what we fear or desire. As hunters, they cull the romantics from the scientists. They live on, even where they no longer survive.
A couple of days after I tramped the woods with Kammann, I spoke with Paul Pladsen, who runs heavy machinery in a nearby quarry. Several times during the winter, he noticed large tracks in the snow. Once he walked out to his equipment after lunch, retraced his steps at quitting time, and noticed that during the afternoon, in broad daylight, big paw prints had appeared.
But the thing that most amazed him occurred another day when he looked down at a set of the same burger-sized tracks. And intertwined, as if walking the same path, was a set of identical tracks. Only they weren’t identical. They were just slightly smaller.
On May 30, a Bloomington policeman shot a 90-pound cougar that crouched near a popular walking path and wouldn’t flee, even after police kicked dirt and shined lights toward it. Cougars are protected, but officers have wide latitude to kill threatening animals.
Greg Breining is a free-lance writer and managing editor of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.
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