Published: July 26, 2011 by the West Central Region
Contact(s): Adrian Wydeven, DNR ecologist, Park Falls, 715-762-1363 Ed Culhane, DNR communications, Eau Claire, 715-781-1683
EAU CLAIRE - One of four different cougars confirmed to have visited Wisconsin - this one dubbed the "Twin Cities Cougar" or the "St. Croix Cougar" - was killed by a vehicle six weeks ago on a busy highway in Connecticut, wildlife officials said today.
From Champlin, Minn., where it was first detected by police on Dec. 5, 2009, to the June 11 accident site near Milford, Conn., is 1,055 miles as the crow flies. This represents a new record for straight-line movement of a known cougar, said wildlife biologist Adrian Wydeven of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
"It's one of those amazing animal stories," Wydeven said today. "It shows the potential some of these animals have for moving across the landscape."
Given that this young male cougar almost certainly originated from the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the fact that it had to circumvent the Great Lakes, the actual distance traveled is closer to 1,600 miles, Wydeven said.
"This probably represents one of the longest movements ever recorded for a terrestrial mammal," Wydeven said.
This is the best documented of the four separate cougars known to have visited Wisconsin.
Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologists Harvey Halvorsen and Jess Carstens tracked this cougar through St. Croix and Dunn counties after it crossed the St. Croix River into Wisconsin in mid December 2009. They were able to collect biological samples and DNA tests confirmed this to be the "Twin Cities Cougar."
Based on tracks and other evidence, biologists believe the same cougar passed by the City of 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.
This was the last DNA evidence, but it was tracked in that area again on Feb. 27, 2010. Then on May 20, 2010, a trail camera photographed a young cougar in Oconto County, and six days later a trail camera in Michigan's Upper Peninsula photographed what biologists believe to be the same animal.
In Connecticut, the mere presence of a cougar created a sensation. The nearest known breeding populations of cougar 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 concluded that the cougar killed by a motorist in a highly developed part of the state was most likely a captive cougar that had been released.
This was the first confirmed incidence of a cougar in Connecticut in modern times, although some scat collected six days before the crash has now been confirmed as cougar, and both the location and DNA tests suggest it's from the same cougar.
"It's a topic of high public interest," said wildlife biologist Paul Rego of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "This was the first time we have confirmed the presence of a cougar."
In Connecticut, as in many states across the country where there is no evidence of cougars, there have nevertheless been a steady stream of cougar sightings that date back decades. Those 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.
Since the June 11 accident, the number of sightings has increased dramatically, Rego said. One of those sightings proved to be a dead deer. Another was a dead house cat. Purported video of a cougar turned out to be video of a dog.
Rego pointed out that this cougar was sighted, photographed and tracked on numerous occasions in Wisconsin in just a three month period. He believes the cougar only recently entered Connecticut, possibly from the Adirondack region of northern New York State. Connecticut is a highly developed state and it seems unlikely a cougar could remain undetected for long, he said.
Rego and Wydeven believe the most likely route followed by the cougar took it through the Upper Peninsula and into Ontario, Canada, where it circled the Great Lakes to the north, eventually crossing into New York and then Connecticut.
A necropsy revealed that the cougar was in near perfect condition before it was struck by the car. This was confusing before it was revealed to be a wild cougar.
"It was in good shape, almost athletic," Rego said.
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 the same lab in Missoula. He was looking for connections, but he did not suspect this was one of the Wisconsin visitors.
"I was totally surprised by that," Wydeven said.
More information about cougars in Wisconsin can be found on the DNR website.