Published: March 14, 2008 by the South Central Region
Contact(s): Adrian Wydeven, Mammal Ecologist, Park Falls: (715) 762-1263
Tami Ryan, Wildlife Supervisor, Milwaukee: (414) 263-8710
Doug Fendry, Wildlife Supervisor, Fitchburg: (608) 275-3230
Michael Schwartz, Geneticist, U.S. Forest Service: (406) 542-4161
FITCHBURG - Department of Natural Resources biologists continue to look into the possible presence of cougars in southern Wisconsin based on observations of animal tracks over the past month.
The latest probe involves cougar tracks found March 7 northeast of Elkhorn in Walworth County by state conservation warden Jason Roberts, Sturtevant. DNR mammal ecologist Adrian Wyedeven, Park Falls, verified the tracks as that of a cougar from photos taken at the scene. A hair sample was collected for genetic analysis to determine whether the animal is a North American cougar.
The location of the possible cougar tracks near Elkhorn is about 23 miles east-southeast of a cougar sighting two months ago in Rock County east of Milton.
"It is possible these (tracks) are the same cougar's, although tracks measured at the Elkhorn site seemed somewhat larger. Difference in track sizes can occur with different snow surface conditions or whether the front or hind feet are being observed," said Mr. Wydeven.
"Front feet are larger than hind feet on cougars," he continued, "and it is hoped that genetic testing will be able to determine the relationships of these cougars to each other."
Urine and blood samples from the 'Milton' cougar were submitted for genetic testing at the U.S. Forest Service Rock Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana, soon after they were collected on Jan. 18.
"Genetic testing has so far shown that the Milton cougar had a mother that was of a North American subspecies, but the father's side has not yet been determined nor has its gender," said the ecologist.
Identifying the paternal or male inheritance will indicate to biologists whether the cougar is of North American origin and wild or a domestic escapee if it's of South American origin. If inheritance on both the mother's and father's side are of North American origins, it makes it more likely that the cougar is native, but still could have escaped from captivity, according to Mr. Wydeven.
The last known wild cougars in Wisconsin, also called mountain lion or puma, disappeared during the early part of the 20th Century. Although reports of cougars have been received around the state over the ensuing years, none have been documented as wild cats since the early 1900s. There have been several instances of captive cougars in Wisconsin escaping into the wild before recapture or disappearance. Cougars have been documented in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois.
Cougars are listed as "protected wild animals" in Wisconsin which means a permit would be required from DNR before someone could kill the animal.
Since Jan. 19, several other observations of cougar tracks have been investigated in Rock County. An apparent cougar track was spotted by a hiker along the Ice Age Trail on the east side of Janesville while possible tracks were seen near Clinton, about two miles north of the Illinois border.The latter tracks were verified by a DNR technician as being a cougar's.
Possible cougar tracks were found west of Beloit on March 5 in the Town of Newark, but these tracks were more than two days old and could not be verified as that of a cougar.
The public is encouraged to contact their nearest DNR office if they observe a large cat, but wildlife biologists remind citizens not to approach the animal, stop, stand tall, do not run and pick-up small children.
"Take digital photos of the animal and its tracks if at all possible and use something such as a tape measure to show the size of the track. Also record the time and exact location of the observation," said DNR wildlife supervisor Doug Fendry, Fitchburg.
Genetic analysis of cougar samples from Wisconsin is being done by the U.S. Forest Service genetic laboratory at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana under the direction of Michael Schwartz. The lab will be examining the blood sample from the Milton cougar to attempt to determine gender, inheritance and possibly the specific population of origin. The lab will also examine the Elkhorn sample to determine if the two cougars are related.