BAUDETTE, Minnesota — Living near Beltrami Island State Forest, a few miles southwest of Baudette, Lake of the Woods County, Dennis Topp sees a variety of creatures on surveillance cameras which he places on his property.
From gray wolves to deer, bobcats, pine martens and even a lynx he saw both on camera and in person a few winters ago, Topp thought he saw at just about every type of wildlife there was to see in this part of northern Minnesota.
That changed in late December, when Topp checked a trail camera just a quarter mile from her house and came across two images of what could only be a cougar.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources verified the image as a cougar sighting, with the caveat that it was not verified at the site because snow had long since covered the tracks. The timestamp on both cat photos is 6:59 a.m. on Tuesday, December 14, and Topp says he didn’t check the trail camera until about a week later.
Topp says he usually hiked or skied for the trail camera every day, but he was babysitting a friend’s dog on vacation and didn’t want to take the animal on the trail just in case he would run away and get lost.
“When I finally went to pull the card out of the camera, I saw wolf tracks, which is not unusual here,” said Topp, a retired fisheries biologist for the DNR in Baudette. “I have a lot of wolves here.”
His reaction to seeing the photo of the puma: “Holy shit!”
At first, Topp says, he wondered if seeing was actually believing or if maybe a house cat had strayed too close to the trail camera, giving the illusion of a big cat. Then a wolf appeared on the same trail camera a few days later and put the sighting more clearly.
“Then you get perspective on size and things like that,” Topp said. “It looked like the cat was actually bigger than the wolf that passed. They weren’t in exactly the same position, but I knew it was a bigger cat.
Topp emailed the photos to Gretchen Mehmel, Red Lake Wildlife Management Area manager at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minnesota. Mehmel, in turn, forwarded the photos to John Erb, a wildlife research scientist for MNR’s Forest Populations and Wildlife Research Group in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
Erb, who handles all reported cougar sightings in Minnesota, agreed that the cat was indeed a cougar, a name used as a synonym for cougar, the most common usage in the Dakotas.
“Right now, I might call it a ‘Level 2’ check,” Erb said. “It’s a cougar, (there is) no reason to doubt its legitimacy, but (it has not been) verified by current DNR personnel.”
Cougar sightings have become more common in Minnesota than they were 20 years ago “for sure,” Erb says, but the DNR maintains the state has no breeding population of big cats , based on olfactory and winter tracking surveys used to sample furbearing animal species.
Instead, most sightings in Minnesota result from cougars coming from the western Dakotas, according to the DNR.
Cougars are protected in Minnesota and cannot be hunted.
The growing prevalence of trail cameras on the landscape is undoubtedly playing a role in the increase in reported sightings, Erb says; Yet reports vary from year to year.
The DNR verified 52 cougar sightings from 2004 to 2020, according to an interactive map on the agency’s website, including a record 15 sightings in 2020.
“We really seemed to see a slight uptick around 2009 or so,” Erb said, including a cat killed by a vehicle that year on the outskirts of Bemidji. “But it fluctuates. I don’t believe we had any in 2014 or 2015. So it’s not a steady climb or anything, but it’s all based on opportunistic public detections and then reporting them to us.
“It’s not a systematic survey.”
Jay Huseby, director of wildlife for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa on the Red Lake Reservation, says the Tribal Department of Natural Resources has yet to record any cougars on trail cameras it places on the land. of the reserve as part of ongoing research on the gray wolf.
“We bait wolves for winter trapping,” Huseby said. “I always thought we would get (a cougar) on camera at one of these sites, but not yet. We get pretty reliable sightings every year on or around the reserve.
Last fall, for example, a DNR tribal worker watched a cougar cross his property one evening near Leonard, Minnesota, in Clearwater County, Huseby said.
At one point, Erb says, he needed “clear evidence” and an on-site visit by an MNR staff member before verifying a cougar sighting. The site visit was implemented to mitigate the risk of pranks and photos being digitally manipulated or falsely claiming to originate from Minnesota or a specific state property. The internet is fertile ground for such hoaxes.
The site visit requirement has been relaxed in the past two years due to staffing shortages and time constraints, Erb says. Instead, it added a “Site Verified – Y or N” column to its database.
“And in all honesty, we’ve had enough sightings in the last 15 years that it’s not as new as it used to be, so I’m less concerned about the absolute rigor of verification,” Erb said. “If someone can visit, so much the better; if not, I will still add to my file with this caveat.
Whatever the requirements, verifying a cougar sighting is an inexact science. In late November, for example, two sightings reported days and miles apart near Cass Lake, Minnesota, were likely the same cat. Ditto for two sightings at the end of December near Owatonna, Minnesota, also a few miles and a few days apart.
Erb says he counted sightings near Cass Lake as one cat. A similar situation likely explains the unprecedented number of sightings in 2020, when a single cougar near Grand Rapids likely accounted for as many as six of 15 sightings, Erb says.
Another cat ultimately killed by a vehicle in the Twin Cities metro area likely represented three more of the sightings the DNR verified in 2020, he says.
“We’re quite certain that in many cases we’re getting repeat detections from the same cat, even though we can’t prove it,” Erb said.
“Over the years we’ve had a few that seem to stick around for a few months or a few months in one area, but they always seem to fade away,” he added.
Or maybe die.
Another caveat: DNR must often assume that the cougar spotted at a particular sighting is a feral cat, not a domestic cougar that has escaped or been released from captivity, Erb says.
“In most cases, we just don’t know,” he said.
DNA sampling may help clear up some of the mystery, and “all the evidence” from the samples the DNR has collected to date point to the genetic origin of the cougars roaming Minnesota as originating from the Black Hills of Dakota. South or West Badlands. North Dakota, Erb said.
Undoubtedly, cats can move a long distance in a relatively short time. In one extreme case, a cougar the DNR genetically sampled near the Twin Cities while collecting a fecal sample was ultimately hit by a car in the state of Connecticut, Erb said.
“Matching samples were also later confirmed, I believe, in Wisconsin and then possibly New York,” Erb said. “But eventually, (the cougar) got hit in Connecticut, and the DNA sample matched.”
With the recent verified sighting near Baudette, Erb says 2021 has likely resulted in four “top cats, maybe fewer” in Minnesota, given the multiple sightings near Cass Lake and Owatonna.
A September sighting in Grant County near Elbow Lake, Minn., and an early November sighting in Carver County near Watertown, Minn., were both site verified, Erb said. .
“There’s no way of knowing how many different cats this all adds up to,” he said.
As for the cat that appeared on Topp’s trail camera near Baudette in December, it’s more than likely miles away now.
That’s part of the mystery — and allure — of these big cat sightings when they happen.
“I didn’t expect to see this – I sure haven’t since,” Topp said. “There is nothing spectacular except for a few deer, wolves and pine martens.
“The usual stuff.”
Some Notable Minnesota Cougar Sightings
Here’s a look at some notable mountain lion sightings in northwestern Minnesota and the Red River Valley over the past two decades:
- Late 2004 and early 2005: A radio-collared male who wandered east from South Dakota eventually passed a few miles west of Grand Forks before crossing the Red River into Minnesota. The cat spent January to mid-March 2005 in a remote part of the Roseau River Wildlife Management Area before disappearing from radar, possibly in Canada.
- 2009: A 114-pound male cougar was killed by a vehicle near Bemidji in September. DNA sampling identified the cat as native to western North Dakota.
- 2013: Dave Larson of Osakis, Minnesota, was hunting coyotes with dogs in January when the dogs smelled a mountain lion. They eventually sported the cat and Larson was able to take several photos and a video clip with his cell phone. In September, DNR verified a trail camera image of a cougar along the Red River in Norman County.
- 2019: In December, DNR verified a trail camera image in central Beltrami County as a cougar.
- 2020: Minnesota DNR verified as cougars a trail camera image from January near Bemidji and a trail camera photograph from February 2020 in Polk County near East Grand Forks.
A complete list of cougar sightings verified by the DNR is available on the DNR website at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/cougar/cougar_verifications.html.