Cat Fights: Cougar Sightings Spark Debate

The cougar lies in a white metal drawer, skull and femur bones stored neatly in separate boxes.

“This is a very important specimen,” says Paula Holahan, curator of rare mammals at the UW Zoology Museum. “It’s the only known, existing Wisconsin cougar.”

Stretched lengthwise, the expertly removed skin retains the memory of life — as if the warm heart and entrails, the thick muscles and golden eyes had simply vaporized, leaving behind an envelope of dense fur, a shrunken face, and large, limp paws.

Wisconsin’s native cougar — felis concolor schorgerii — is officially extinct. Wiped out as of the early 1900s, the cougar couldn’t coexist with farmers who despised its tendency to pounce on livestock when other prey became scarce. The cougar in this drawer was killed more than 150 years ago by a farmer looking for a lost colt.

But it was no ghost cat that a bus driver observed crossing a road in Price County in January. And many Juneau County residents believe a cougar is responsible for a series of attacks on livestock this spring and summer.

Cougars are coming back, and their presence is stirring up a hornet’s nest of opinions as to whether or not they belong in Wisconsin. Like the wolf, the cougar is seen by some as a threat to livestock, deer and people. Others are delighted to think that Wisconsin’s wild landscape might once again sustain the admittedly beautiful cat.

The state Department of Natural Resources, meanwhile, is attempting to deal with an animal for which there is, as of yet, no management plan. Until wildlife biologists can prove there’s a breeding population here, the cougar is in limbo, with DNR biologists deciding its fate on a case-by-case basis. The agency is struggling, as well, with a shortage of wildlife specialists trained to recognize cougar signs, and an unclear protocol about how to handle reports of sightings and livestock attacks.

One thing’s certain: If the predator stalking Juneau County this summer turns out to be a cougar, it will be euthanized and turned over to the UW Zoology Museum, where it will likely end up — along with its 150-year-old cousin — in a drawer in the rare species storage room.

“If we don’t take action and control problem animals right from the start, acceptance of cougars will be very low,” says Adrian Wydeven, a mammalian ecologist and wolf biologist who has been monitoring cougar sightings and running track surveys on the big cats since 1991.

Wisconsin has plenty of ideal cougar habitat, including rocky bluffs and forested rivers. But the cats like to roam, and the DNR wants to stay on top of their whereabouts. A handful of unconfirmed sightings in Dane County over the last 10 years aren’t enough to concern wildlife specialists yet. But once a cougar shows up in an urban area, problems inevitably occur. Out West — in states with healthy cougar populations, including California, Montana and Washington — cougars have been spotted in backyards, on rooftops, and in city parks. And while attacks are rare, they are on the rise out West: Out of 10 fatal cougar attacks in the last 100 years, the last five have occurred within the last decade.

Just how many cougars are in Wisconsin? In the last two years, the DNR has documented the presence of at least four cougars in the state. The animals are thought to be transient members of a western population, probably from South Dakota, just passing through. Cougars are present in Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan, though it probably will take another couple of years to prove the existence of a breeding population in those states, as well as here, Wydeven says.

Meanwhile, the DNR is watching to determine how well the transients do.

“Are they a nuisance? Are they staying in areas suitable for cougars, or are they going to areas where they are causing problems?” Wydeven ticks off a few criteria for determining how warm a welcome the creature will get from the DNR.

“We may decide that we don’t have the space for a breeding population of cougars, so we aren’t going to do anything to encourage or discourage it,” Wydeven says. “That’s all speculation — we just have to wait and see.”

Sherry Jones does not have to wait and see. Since April, Jones has had four sheep killed, and two horses slashed from mane to throat, on her farm in southwestern Juneau County. A U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife specialist, under contract with the DNR, confirmed all of them as cougar attacks at the time.

The first time her horse, Chief, was attacked, Jones was mystified by the wounds. It was as if “a large hand had raked down his neck,” she says. Jones and her daughter went down to the pond to look for animal tracks.

“We found these perfect prints in the mud, and when the USDA wildlife specialist came out, he took plaster casts of them. He said they were the tracks of a very large cougar.”

They also found a dead sheep, with wounds consistent with a cougar attack. Over the next few weeks, Jones lost four sheep, and a neighboring farmer lost a heifer, all to confirmed cougar attacks. And then on June 14, Jones’ horse, Chief, was slashed again, this time more seriously. Jones searched for her horse early that morning.

“I kind of broke down,” she recalls. “I was following his blood track through the brush, and I knew he was hurt bad. I begged them to bring the lion dogs out.”

Dogs and trackers finally arrived mid-morning. They combed the bluffs, cliffs and wetlands, but the predator was long gone.

Trail cameras, sharpshooters and trackers failed to turn up anything further on Jones’ farm. Then, on Aug. 3, Jones’ horses were attacked for a third time. Chief broke a leg in the struggle and had to be put down. Jones says lion dogs were brought out that night, too, but again failed to find anything. She believed these attacks would also be confirmed as cougar. Instead, on Aug. 17, the DNR’s central office issued a news release backpedaling on its previous confirmations of all Juneau County cougar attacks.

In the release, the agency doesn’t rule out the possibility of a cougar in the area, but refers to the situation as a “mystery.”

“We sent pictures of the evidence — tracks, wounds — to experts out West,” explains Wydeven. “They said it did not look like a cougar to them. But they can’t say it’s not, either.”

What about the Juneau County turkey hunter who saw a cougar mauling a heifer in June? Turns out a farmer may have told the hunter’s story, and DNR officials were too quick to call it credible. When Wydeven finally reached the hunter to interview him six weeks after the attack, “he surprised us. His description wasn’t consistent with an adult cougar.”

Wydeven admits the agency made mistakes in confirming the Juneau County attacks as cougar.

“We didn’t do a thorough enough job of getting pictures and plaster casts. We made assumptions, based on information reported to us,” he says. “Our goal is to get our wildlife specialists better trained.”

Jones says she is confused and concerned. The injuries to her animals, the tracks found on her farm and inspected by three DNR specialists, the research she’s done and the feedback she received from the DNR at the time all have her convinced that the attacks were cougar-caused.

“I don’t understand the reversal,” she says.

Such are the challenges the DNR faces as it develops a protocol for dealing with the notoriously elusive cougar as it returns to its old native habitat.

An old saying has it that you won’t see a cougar unless it wants you to. Secretive and shy by nature, cougars are also curious. There have been reports of them following another animal, even a human, with no urge to attack. But this is rare; cougars prefer to stay hidden, says Wydeven. And there has never been a recorded cougar attack on a human in Wisconsin. That doesn’t stop people from worrying about their children or pets. Online discussions following articles about cougars in Wisconsin almost always mention these concerns. Partly this is due, Wydeven believes, to reports of cougar encounters, some deadly, in western states, where shrinking habitat and urban sprawl are bringing cougars and people into closer contact.

“Stand your ground, wave your arms, shout and yell,” Wydeven recommends, to folks fearful of coming face-to-face with the big cat. “It’s relatively easy to scare them off.”

The only exceptions, he says, would be a cougar who is starving, has kittens, or has become dangerously habituated to humans.

In the Black Hills of South Dakota, home to a healthy population of around 250 cougars, the latter problem is taken seriously and handled proactively.

“We have a zero tolerance policy for cougars that try to settle themselves into a community. If we see that, we euthanize them,” says Chuck Schlueter of South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks. Ditto for cougars that prey on livestock, though Schlueter says this has been much less of a problem than feared. Farmers are allowed to shoot cougars on the prowl, and there’s also a cougar hunting season — controversial at first, and now considered a vital management tool. The state’s cougar management plan has been in place since 2005 and so far, seems to be working.

“What our public surveys indicate is that there is a large acceptance of cougars and a desire to have them as part of our wild landscape,” he says.

Eric Koens raises registered polled Hereford beef cattle on 400 acres in rural Rusk County, about 70 miles northwest of Eau Claire. Koens has never seen a cougar, but most of his neighbors have had problems with wolves.

“Any farmer who has had predator problems in the past — and that’s most of us — would not be excited about having another predator on the landscape,” he declares.

Koens, a leading member of the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association who served on the group’s board and is now on its legislative committee, also served on the Wolf Advisory Committee as the sole farmer’s voice. He believes that farmers’ concerns ought to be taken more seriously.

“The DNR couldn’t predict the wolf population would grow so fast, and now look at the damage that is being done,” he says.

The wolf population has climbed to 700, double the DNR’s original goal of 350 animals when wolves began naturally repopulating the state in the 1970s. Depredation tends to fluctuate but has hovered around 30 to 40 cattle (and 15 to 20 hunting dogs) killed by wolves each year since 2004. Last year, the state paid out a little more than $90,000 in wolf damage compensation.

Koens believes letting cougars survive — and thrive — in Wisconsin should be a matter for the public to decide.

“As far as I’m concerned, we do not need cougars in Wisconsin,” he says. “Our cattle are free-range animals. There’s no way we could protect them from a predator like the cougar.”

Lessons from the wolf’s recovery will be applied to the cougar, Wydeven says, but unlike with the timber wolf, the DNR has no plans to launch a formal recovery program for the animal; cougars, unlike wolves, are not federally endangered. And while the agency “welcomes the return of a native predator,” DNR biologists admit there are even more unknowns with this predator than there were with the wolf.

Cougars, like wolves, eat white-tailed deer and feel at home in forested areas, but that’s where the similarities end. The solitary cat’s behavior is more difficult to predict than that of the more social wolf. A cougar can roam vast distances — the male cougar that wandered down through the Janesville area in 2008, on its way to a deadly fate in Chicago, traveled 800 miles from the Black Hills. It is expert at hiding, and has been known to attack people. Such attacks are uncommon, though not as rare as with wolves.

And out West, at least, wolves don’t like to share territory with cougars.

Does that mean cougars will find farm country more to their liking? Even though Juneau County is dotted with towns and stitched by roads, there are enough rocky, wooded bluffs and narrow valleys where a cougar could have hidden for weeks. In fact, folks in this hilly region, known as the Driftless Area, say cougars have been roaming there for decades. Wydeven admits this might be so.

“If there were cougars we hadn’t found yet, the Coulee Region would be the most likely place they’d be,” he says. “We don’t do tracking surveys there.”

Wydeven says it’s difficult to get the permission of private landowners in the area to allow any tracking studies; this work is done mostly up north, where there is more public land available.

If cougars have been living in the Driftless Area all this time, they’ve been remarkably well-behaved. Until this summer, there have been no confirmed cougar depredations in more than a century.

Wydeven points to South Dakota, where depredation isn’t much of a problem, because the cougar’s favorite food — deer — is widely available. Here in Wisconsin, there are plenty of white-tailed deer, and what biologists hope is that cougars will stick to their wild diet.

But many hunters aren’t too excited about sharing deer with cougars.

“A transient cougar won’t have much of an effect, but if one set up shop and started working a 30-mile area, it would have a significant impact on local deer herds,” says Jeff Davis, a hunter from Sturgeon Bay who also edits Whitetails Unlimited’s membership magazine. He says just the presence of a cougar would cause deer to hide and move, making hunting more difficult. Hunters, he says, are already discouraged by what they see as a dwindling herd and less rewarding days afield.

“We’re hearing lots of guys say they didn’t see anything last year,” he says. “Hunter retention is a big deal right now. And anything that would reduce the number of hunters in the field would concern us.”

Wydeven concurs that deer might be spooked if a cougar were in the area but says overall, he’s not sure if cougars would have much of an impact on deer numbers statewide. Wisconsin’s deer herd is considered healthy, at around 1.2 million animals. An adult cougar kills, on average, one deer a week.

Once a breeding population is established here — and Wydeven says it’s not a question anymore of if, but when, that will happen — the DNR will have to consider the concerns of influential groups like Whitetails Unlimited, the Conservation Congress, the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association and others. Wydeven says the agency would need to go through, at the very least, “a general public involvement process, to determine people’s opinions and hopes for cougars returning to the state.” Moving the cougar from “protected wild species,” its current designation, to “state-endangered” would offer the animal more protection but might tick off farmers and hunters. Some might support a cougar harvest, just as there is in South Dakota. Meanwhile, the cougar, unaware that its fate is tied to human concerns, will do what comes naturally: seek the rocky bluffs and forest edges where it can remain hidden, yet still find food.

There are plenty of folks quietly celebrating the cougar’s comeback. Steve Glick, who lives in Lyndon near the Sauk and Juneau county line and has served on the Conservation Congress since 1976, says he is moved by the thought of the animal returning after so many years.

“Everything has a place in the ecosystem. I truly think that if people use common sense, there is room for everything.”

Glick, a hunter, says other hunters share his view. But he doesn’t want cougars preying on his neighbors’ livestock, and admits that the animal roaming Juneau County this summer needs to be euthanized.

“This cougar has worn out its welcome,” he says. “I would love to see it tranquilized and taken somewhere else, but that’s just not economically feasible.”

Near Lyndon, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, a popular 32-mile rails-to-trails route, runs smack through the hills and valleys of Juneau County. You might think bikers would be a bit concerned, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, according to Judy Lydon, manager of bike rental at Kendall Depot Trail Headquarters.

“We haven’t had any sightings by the trail. Nobody’s even mentioned it,” says Lydon.

Cindy Gagan, manager of the Horse Camp at Wildcat Mountain State Park, says no one has raised any concerns to her about cougars, either, though the camp is only 30 miles from the locus of the attacks in Juneau County. She herself has ridden horses in South Dakota and Wyoming, where cougars are more common.

“Out there, you are right among them. They may be here. This is perfect habitat for them. We just keep an eye out. I really have no misgivings about them, though.”

As long as human encounters remain benign (or non-existent), hikers and campers may turn out to be the cougar’s most passionate advocates.

Eric Sherman, an avid hiker who works for the Ice Age Trail Alliance, guesses most of the group’s members would view the return of the cougar as “a celebratory thing.” He admits that he would be thrilled to glimpse a cougar while hiking, just as he would be to see a wolf. The element of danger, he points out, is part of the meaning of wilderness.

“Anyone who ventures out into a wilderness setting in Wisconsin has some understanding of the risks. If a cougar was ever sighted, that would be a good time to think about promoting cougar awareness, preparedness and safety to our members.”

In 2007, Wisconsin’s 42 state trails, totaling more than 1,700 miles, were designated the Aldo Leopold Legacy Trail System, in honor of the conservation icon who founded the University of Wisconsin’s wildlife management department. Part of Leopold’s legacy was his view that predators were a necessary part of the landscape.

In his essay, “Wilderness” — written in 1947, the year before he died — Leopold lamented the “wolfless” national parks, the elimination of “lions” and the retreat of grizzlies toward Canada. He could not have foreseen the re-establishment of those large predators out West, let alone the return of the wolf and cougar to his home state of Wisconsin. While recognizing the thorny management issues, it is hard to imagine that Leopold would not also have found reason to celebrate.

Back at the UW Zoology Museum, Paula Holahan closes the white metal drawer containing the 150-year-old cougar. She wants visitors to understand the importance of having specimens like this one preserved right here, where people can come and study them. Around the storage room, the plastic-shrouded skeletons of extinct birds and long-dead mammals peer down, silent witnesses to hard lessons.

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