Proof of cougars remains elusive|Richard_F||01/09/07 at 12:57:49|richard_f|xx|0||Proof of cougars remains elusive
If they're not here, they soon will be, state researcher says
Jim Lee

STEVENS POINT - A year-long search failed to turn up positive proof that
mountain lions are present in Wisconsin, but the study's leader is far from

"We're still looking, but I don't think it (finding conclusive evidence) is
too far off," said Eric Anderson, professor of wildlife at the University of
Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

"If cougars are not here, they're going to be here, and we should be
thinking about how we are going to deal with their presence."

Anderson's optimism is buoyed by a photograph reportedly taken Oct. 22,
2005, near Ettrick in Trempealeau County. A bow hunter's trail camera
produced a blurry image that appears to be a cougar with a large collar
around its neck.

"I consider it to be a legitimate photo," Anderson said. "It's intriguing,
to say the least."

The presence of a collar could indicate the animal is an escaped pet cougar,
but Anderson has another theory.

"South Dakota is doing radio-collar work with cougars. One of their collared
cougars was located in northwestern Minnesota. One was headed in the
direction of Wisconsin, and they don't know its fate."

If the latter animal is the cougar captured on camera, there is no way to
verify it.

But the presence of cougars has been documented in Illinois and Minnesota,
Anderson said, and the Michigan public is pushing that state's Department of
Natural Resources to concede cougars have a small but established population

Dozens of cougar sightings have been reported in Wisconsin in recent years,
but state DNR officials say strong photographic or physical evidence is
needed to verify those reports and to take any steps that might be necessary
regarding the animals' future.

Anderson began a concerted effort to obtain DNA samples of cougars in 2006.

Hair snares on rubbing posts baited with cat lure were placed in several
areas of the state with frequent cougar sightings. The snares were designed
to capture cat hairs for DNA testing to ascertain whether the hair came from
a cougar or some other animal.

"We put a total of 36 hair snares out from Jan. 3 to the end of March,"
Anderson said. "We had seven hits. Two were from bobcats, two were from
black bear and three were of unknown materials."

This winter, an additional effort will be made to collect hair samples, but
the snare device has been redesigned and the cat lure reformulated.

"We're trying to increase the attractiveness to mountain lions," Anderson
said. "We've done trials on captive animals to see which formula gets the
best reaction. We're trying to elicit a rubbing response."

Snare efforts will be concentrated in Lincoln, Langlade and Oneida counties,
enabling UWSP student researchers Kristina Artner and Joe Welch to more
easily monitor the stations.

"The Rhinelander area produced the most cougar sightings in the state this
past summer, with close to 10 observations," Anderson said.

Many cougar sightings appear legitimate at first glance, he added, "but
maybe 90 percent of the sightings are explainable as other species.

"When people have photos, nine times out of 10, the photo is of a bobcat.
Shadows or the angle of the lens affect a photo, and if you don't know what
you're looking for, it can look very much like a mountain lion."

Anderson said the Ettrick photo is the only one "that I'm really quite
convinced may be a mountain lion."

A paw print obtained along the Wisconsin-Michigan border in Vilas County
"looks pretty darn convincing to me," he added.

If one of the hair snares produces DNA evidence that a cougar is present, an
array of trail cameras may be established in the vicinity, Anderson said.

Adrian Wydeven, a DNR wildlife specialist at Park Falls, and Anderson have
been looking for conclusive evidence of cougars in Wisconsin since 2003.

"We don't have any answers yet, but we have lots and lots of questions,"
Anderson said.

Among the intriguing queries:

If a native breeding cougar population is indeed present, how have these
stealthy animals maintained a presence on the landscape without leaving more
physical evidence of their existence?