Reports of cougars come in pretty regularly across the Northland, but many remain unsubstantiated with no photos or physical evidence. One cougar sighting debunker, a retired wildlife biologist, once said most of the reports he checked out turned out to be deer, yellow labs or smaller cats like bobcats or lynx.
Another common prank is to label photos of cougars taken in western states and posted on social media as having been taken in Minnesota or Wisconsin.
But the plethora of trail cameras in the woods in recent years are offering a better, verifiable glimpse at cougars as they occasionally prowl across the region.
On Aug. 13 a trail camera in the Red Cliff area of northeastern Bayfield County captured a cougar with a dead coyote in its mouth, said Todd Naas, Wisconsin DNR biologist in Ashland. Then on Aug. 20 a deer hunter’s trail camera in southeastern Bayfield County took photos of a big cat as it took down and dragged away a deer near the White River just after 1 p.m. The cat also appeared on trail camera frames the next two nights. The owner of the camera (and the land it was on) has asked to remain anonymous. No one knows if it was the same cougar, of course.
“We did confirm the site and confirm there was a cougar in the pictures,’’ Matthew Koshollek, Wisconsin Conservation Warden stationed in Drummond, told the News Tribune.
There haven’t been any other cougar sightings or reports in the area since then, Naas said.
Koshollek said it was his first confirmed cougar in four years on the job in Bayfield County and called it “a once in a lifetime thing to get them on a trail camera in this area.” Naas said he gets annual unconfirmed reports but that this is the first confirmed cougar in several years in his area.
There's little evidence of cougars staying long or reproducing in the Northland. The ones confirmed here are believed to be mostly wandering young male cats. Most are believed to be passing through, originally from the western Dakotas, searching for female cat companionship. Other cougars seen in the region have turned out to be released or escaped pets.
The Minnesota DNR reports that, since 2004 there have been 29 confirmed cougar sightings in the state. Several well-traveled cougars have made news, including one cat that roamed through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2009 and 2010 and wound up struck and killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011. That cougar, tracked by DNA, is believed to have started its journey in the Black Hills.
Also in 2011 there were several unrelated reports of a cougar in the area of eastern Duluth and what was then Rice Lake Township. Another cougar was caught on a trail camera north of Two Harbors in 2010. Cougars also were caught on trail camera photos near Grand Marais in 2016 and north of Mora in 2018.
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. Most cougars will avoid confrontation. The Minnesota DNR suggests that, if you encounter a cougar:
Face the cougar directly, raise your arms to make yourself appear larger and speak loudly and firmly. This behavior is in direct conflict with a cougar's tendency to hunt by stalking and attacking from ambush. Do not run, crouch or lay on the ground.
Do not shoot the animal. Cougars are a protected species and may only be killed by a licensed peace officer or authorized permit holder.
Report the encounter or sighting to a conservation officer or local law enforcement authorities as soon as possible so evidence such as photographs, tracks, hair and scat can be located, identified, confirmed and documented.