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Cougar that roamed Wisconsin killed in Connecticut car crash

Biologists have confirmed that a cougar killed six weeks ago on a Connecticut roadway is the same animal that wandered Dunn County and other parts of Wisconsin two winters ago.

Biologists have confirmed that a cougar killed six weeks ago on a Connecticut roadway is the same animal that wandered Dunn County and other parts of Wisconsin two winters ago.

Scientists estimate the cougar traveled about 1,600 miles during the past several years -- from its home in South Dakota's Black Hills through Minnesota and the Twin Cities metropolitan area, into Wisconsin and the Chippewa Valley, and north of the Great Lakes into Canada -- before making its way to Milford, Conn., where it was struck by a vehicle June 11.

This particular cougar covered more ground than any other of its species that has been tracked by scientists, said Adrian Wydeven, a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

"This probably represents one of the longest movements ever recorded for a terrestrial mammal," Wydeven said.

In December 2009, DNR biologists tracked the cougar through St. Croix and Dunn counties, after it crossed the St. Croix River into Wisconsin. They collected biological samples, and DNA tests confirmed that the animal was a match to what biologists called the "Twin Cities Cougar."

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Based on tracks and other evidence, biologists believe the same cougar passed by Eau Claire, entered Clark County to the east and then turned north. On Feb. 15, 2010, Wydeven followed cougar tracks in Bayfield County, south of Cable, and obtained a scat sample for DNA analysis, eventually learning that this was the same cougar tracked in St. Croix and Dunn counties.

The cougar was tracked in that area later that winter and spring.

Wydeven said when he first heard about the crash in Connecticut, he called a biologist colleague there and asked that biological samples be sent to a laboratory in Montana. He didn't suspect that the cougar had been in Wisconsin.

"I was totally surprised by that," Wydeven said. "It shows the potential some of these animals have for moving across the landscape."

The cougar was one of four confirmed by the DNR to have visited Wisconsin in recent years.

In Connecticut, the mere presence of a cougar, also known as a mountain lion, created a sensation. The nearest-known breeding populations of cougars are in Florida and the Black Hills of South Dakota, each more than 1,000 miles away. Since the longest-recorded movement of a dispersing male cougar was previously 663 miles, from the Black Hills to Oklahoma, biologists first concluded that the cougar killed by a motorist in Connecticut was most likely a captive cougar that had been released.

In fact, the cougar's appearance in Connecticut marked the first appearance of that species in the state in modern times.

"It's a topic of high public interest," said wildlife biologist Paul Rego of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

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Connecticut, like many U.S. states, doesn't have a history of being home to cougars. But residents there and elsewhere have reported cougar sightings for decades.

People reporting the sightings have been frustrated by the state's refusal to confirm the presence of cougars, Rego said, but, as in Wisconsin, the science-based agency is limited to reporting what it can prove.

Rego believes the cougar only recently entered Connecticut, possibly from the Adirondack region of northern New York State. Connecticut is a highly populated state, and it seems unlikely a cougar could remain undetected for long, he said.

Biologists believe the cougar most likely traveled through the Upper Peninsula and into Ontario, where it circled the Great Lakes to the north, eventually crossing into New York and then Connecticut.

An animal autopsy revealed that the 140-pound cougar was in near-perfect health before it was struck by the vehicle.

"It was in good shape, almost athletic," Rego said.

Information from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was included in this report. Knight can be reached at 715-830-5835, 800-236-7077 or joe.knight@ecpc.com .

To see more of The Leader-Telegram or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.leadertelegram.com .

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Copyright (c) 2011, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis./Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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