BY CELESTE LOURIGAN For the Daily Press
Around 70 people filled the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College Tuesday night to hear about confirmed cases of cougars across Wisconsin.
Adrian Wydeven, a forest wildlife specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), has tracked reports of cougars since 1990. But it was almost two decades later before their presence was first confirmed in the state.
Despite their existence, Wydeven said people shouldn’t fear them.
“I think they’re like so many other wildlife species,” he said. “If you learn to respect them, learn how to deal with them, there is no reason to be fearful of them any more than bears, wolves, coyotes and the neighbor’s dog, (which) is still more of a risk than anything else.”
The last native cougar of Wisconsin was killed in 1910, according to Wydeven. Since then, cougars have traveled east to occupy more territory over the past couple decades. There have been nine or 10 different cougars confirmed in Wisconsin since 2008. He added that all were males determined to originate from the nearest breeding population in South Dakota.
Wydeven explained that all cougars seen in Wisconsin have been males because they must leave their native territory after reaching adulthood.
“They have to normally leave because the adult male that occupies that area is not going to tolerate other adult males, including his own offspring,” said Wydeven.
Cougars tend to cover large territories of up to 150 square miles. Wydeven said Wisconsin sightings usually occur as cougars pass through the territory. Female cougars often occupy less space and don’t typically travel as far as males. Two or three female cougars may live within the same territory as a male.
Wydeven expects one day Wisconsin may have a breeding population of cougars. The first sign of that would likely be seen in Minnesota, where there are currently none.
Wydeven said the first cougar spotted in Wisconsin was in Rock County in 2008. Another cougar was sighted in St. Croix, Dunn, Clark and Bayfield Counties from late 2009 to early 2010. The cat wasn’t seen again until June 2011, when DNA testing revealed a dead cougar 1,055 miles away in Connecticut was the same cougar spotted in Wisconsin. Since then, cougars have been spotted locally in Iron, Douglas and Bayfield Counties.
Town of Lincoln resident Jack Wichita said the lecture surprised him about the number of confirmed cougar sightings in the area.
“I think that’s exciting and I love the idea of having predators like that here,” said Wichita. “I feel they’re an important part of nature. We’ve been fearful of them for so long and eliminated them for so long. I’m glad they’re back.”
Similarly, Jim Meeker from Gurney said it was exciting to know that there were cougars in the area.
“If I saw one in our woods, the hair on the back of my neck would probably rise up,” said Meeker. “But other than that, just thinking about it, I think it’s sort of neat that there are wild things that we have to be aware of.”
Questions from the audience ranged from the growing population of cougars in South Dakota to how wolves and cougars interact. Wydeven said the number of cougars in South Dakota has grown significantly since his time studying elk there in the 1970s. But he said their numbers are now leveling off to about 200 due in part to hunting of cougars. Concerning how wolves and cougars interact, Wydeven said the two predators have been known to co-exist.
According to Wydeven, most of the cougar sighting reports that the WDNR has received over the years were unlikely or only possible sightings. He said people often mistake other animals for cougars, including bobcats, fishers and wolves.
Wydeven encouraged people who have seen cougars to submit pictures and information about the sighting on the WDNR’s Large Mammal Observation Forum at http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/mammalobsform.asp