Local cougar sightings: residents or tourists?
By Jeremy Ratliff, Reporter at the Merrill Foto News
Thanks to a flurry of reported sightings on social media – and a handful of confirmed sightings since 2011 – many Lincoln and Langlade county residents have been left to question if cougars have taken up residence in our area.
Janet Brehm, Wisconsin DNR Wildlife Biologist for Lincoln and Langlade counties, says the answer is “no.”
“At this time, we have no reason to believe there is a cougar population in Lincoln or Langlade counties, or in the state of Wisconsin for that matter,” Brehm said.
As Brehm further explains, for a particular species of wildlife to be considered having a population or permanent residence in a given territory, verifiable evidence must be present of active breeding.
And to date, no such evidence has been discovered.
In fact, Brehm reports current evidence leads biologists to believe confirmed sightings have been that of a handful of cougars – transient, young bachelor cougars to be exact – who are just entering adulthood.
“We rely on feedback from the public to confirm these things, such as sighting reports and photographs. We can also verify by physical evidence such as tracks, for example. To date, we believe the confirmed sightings in this area, over the last several years, are two to three different young male cougars moving through the area.”
Brehm indicates the same male spotted in Langlade County last July, was photographed twice in a 24-hour period, but was initially thought to be two separate cats.
The cat involved in the 2011 Lincoln County sighting is believed to be yet another male who has not been seen since.
“They can at times have rather odd traveling behavior,” Brehm adds. “They may pass through an area and not be seen again, or they may decide to hang around a given area for a while. In most cases, human population can be a key factor.”
As an example, prior to coming to Lincoln County, Brehm worked as a DNR biologist in Marinette County, near the border with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
While there, she confirmed the sighting of a cougar last year as well, and goes on to explain a spike in verified sightings in the UP.
“Areas of confirmed sightings tend to be more abundant in the area of the Upper Peninsula and we believe this is due to a lower human population density compared to Wisconsin. Woodlands tend to be more expansive in the UP and overall less inhabited by humans, which has triggered a sort of a funnel effect by traveling males. They tend to linger in remote areas such as these, due to the lack of human presence.”
So if our lithe, tawny colored four-legged visitors are just that, where are they coming from?
“We have evidence to believe the cougars we have seen locally are making their way over from the Black Hills area of the western Dakotas and eastern Wyoming,” Brehm adds. “Given the relatively young age of the animals we have identified, we believe they have been kicked out of their territory out west by other males and set out to find their own territory.”
Although traveling from the Black Hills to North Central Wisconsin can appear to be quite a trek, Brehm states such a roaming area is quite common and can span much further.
“We have found evidence indicating cougars, found as far East as New York and Connecticut, originated in the Black Hills and passed through our local area while en route.”
As for other unconfirmed sightings, Brehm cites a common occurrence of cougars being mistaken for bobcats, of which the state and local area does indeed have a growing population.
Comparing the two mammals at face value may lead one to wonder how they could be mistaken for one another. However, from a distance or view on a wildlife or trail camera, the misidentification can be quite easy.
“Although bobcats are much smaller in size compared to cougars, adults bobcats are quite muscular and stout animals. This can lead to them appearing much larger than they actually are,” Brehm explains.
Key contrasting characteristics between the two cats are tail length, overall shoulder height and coloring.
To assist in local residents in differentiating between the two species, Brehm offers these comparisons:
- Adult weight: 116-160 pounds (male) and 75-110 pounds (female)
- Shoulder height: 27-31 inches
- Tail length: 28-38 inches and ropelike with a black tip
- Some black on the front of the muzzle, below the nose
- Back of the ears are solid black or gray
- Light spotting may still be present until the cougar is two years old
- In mud or snow, tracks measure 2.7-4.0 inches in length and 2.8-4.5 inches wide
- Their relatively high shoulder height and thick fur make them appear much larger than they really are
- Weight: 11-35 pounds
- Shoulder height: 17-22 inches
- Tail length: 5-7 inches, marked with several indistinct dark bands, and black tipped only on the topside
- The large ears are black on the outside, with a white central spot, and their eyes are a yellowish brown
- Their ear tufts, if present, are much smaller than those of the Canada lynx, as is the ruff framing their face, lynx are extremely rare (black tip goes all the way around the tail)
Although a permanent cougar population has yet to be established in Wisconsin, that doesn’t mean a population can’t or won’t ever be established. On that note, Brehm encourages local residents to document any sightings or possible evidence of cougars and report to the Wisconsin DNR as soon as possible. Although photographs are very helpful, any evidence discovered can be useful for biologists in continuing to monitor cougar activity both locally and statewide.
“If you see a cougar or other large mammal, such as a lynx, wolf or moose, use the DNR’s website (www.dnr.wi.gov),” Brehm adds. “This information will be directed to the local wildlife biologist. If you have a cougar track or picture, also call your local wildlife biologist right away. Try not to disturb the track, but attempt to take a picture of the track by placing something of known reference next to it. A perfect example is a dollar bill, or other currency, folded in half. Obviously, a ruler is the best tool.
“If a cougar approaches and does not immediately flee, stand tall, wave your arms, throw stones or other objects and yell. Don’t run, but slowly back away from the site, keeping an eye on the cougar.”