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Report: Cougars recolonizing Midwest

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Many Minnesotans likely won't forget the reports of a couple of years ago that a cougar was making its way around the northern Twin Cities suburbs.

That adventurous cat eventually made it all the way to Connecticut, where it was killed by a car.

A report from the University of Minnesota researcher published in The Journal of Wildlife Management notes that cougars like that one are slowly expanding their range eastward returning to areas where they were killed off a century ago.

Cougars, also known as mountain lions, once lived across most of the country. Long pushed into mountainous hideouts, they're making a comeback. Many of them roam from the Black Hills of South Dakota, where at least 220 of the animals live.

U of M doctoral student Michelle LaRue has been compiling confirmed sightings and physical evidence collected by wildlife agencies and a non-profit group called the Cougar Network.

LaRue found 178 cougar confirmations in the Midwest, with numbers steadily increasing over the last 20 years. That may not sound like a lot of sightings, but LaRue said the team was very particular about the evidence it accepted.

"It had to be either a carcass, photo, video, track, or scat of an actual animal," she said.

Researchers also accepted sightings by trained wildlife biologists. Apparently, many animals are easily mistaken for a cougar.

Last year, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association asked members to send in reports and photographs from trail cameras of cougars.

The vast majority of the photos were decidedly something else, said Mark Johnson, the group's executive director.

"Some were very definitely a house cat or a fox, or a bobcat, " Johnson said. "There was one that was walking behind a tree but you could tell it was a yellow lab."

But last fall, Tony Rondeau of Fergus Falls, Minn., captured a cougar on his trail camera.

"Checked the camera and there was a cougar sighting on it," Rondeau said. "It was like seven o'clock in the evening -- about the time a person would be getting out of their deer stand -- and it walked within, I would guess, 18 yards of my archery deer stand."

Rondeau looked for tracks, hair and scat, but didn't find anything. However, state Department of Natural Resources wildlife officials confirmed that the critter on his camera was a cougar.

The U of M study suggests people may need to get used to having them around, eventually. The adventurous animals, like the one that explored all the way to Connecticut two years ago, are young males. Females don't travel as far.

But researcher LaRue said breeding populations have been confirmed in western North Dakota and western Nebraska.

LaRue said cougars need about the same amount of space as a wolf pack, -- about 80 square miles -- to find prey. Cougars hunt mostly deer and elk, although they will eat smaller animals as well. Male cougars will tolerate only a couple of females, but no other males in their territory.

LaRue wants state wildlife agencies to help prepare people to share land with cougars, and to sort out the myths from scientific fact. She said even out west, it is very rare for a cougar to attack a person.

"If there happened to be a cougar in your vicinity, it would see before you saw it and it would run before it saw you," LaRue said.

She said that a cougar would not consider humans as prey "unless it was really, really hungry."

Minnesota law prohibits the killing of cougars unless a person's life is threatened.

Given Minnesota's plentiful white-tailed deer population here in Minnesota, LaRue said that cougars should be well fed.

As far as Rondeau is concerned, it's exciting to have a big predator around. Humans can learn to live with them, he said.

"Just like bear, in bear country, and there are timber wolves around, not that far away from here and people are living with them and we'll have a season on them," Rondeau said. "It's just part of the natural scheme, I don't know why we'd need to be afraid of that."