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Cougar killed in Connecticut once roamed Northland

This June 2011 photo released Tuesday by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection shows a worker examining a dead mountain lion at the Sessions Woods Wildlife Center in Burlington, Conn. DEEP Commissioner Daniel Esty said tests determined that the cat, which was killed when struck by a car June 11 in Milford, Conn., had traveled all the way from South Dakota. (Courtesy of Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection)

Wildlife officials using DNA analysis have confirmed that a cougar struck and killed on a Connecticut highway last month was the same one that passed through Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2009 and 2010.

The cougar's 1,055-mile trek is considered a new record for most miles traveled by a wild cat, said Adrian Wydeven, biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The animal was first seen on Dec. 5, 2009, by police in Champlin, Minn., just north of the Twin Cities. It was later confirmed -- by DNA analysis of its scat from all three locations -- near Eau Claire and later near Cable in Bayfield County.

"It's one of those amazing animal stories," Wydeven said, adding that the cougar's travels prove the cats' ability to move faster and farther than anyone thought. "This probably represents one of the longest movements ever recorded for a terrestrial mammal.''

Biologists guess that the young male cougar originated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the closest reproducing population to the Northland, and thus actually traveled about 1,600 miles before being struck and killed June 11 by an SUV on the busy Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Conn.

Wydeven told the News Tribune that young male cougars get kicked out of their mother's territories, often by adult males, and then begin roaming, looking for suitable habitat with food and female cougars.

"As they travel east, they can find deer. But they never find the females so they just keep moving,'' Wydeven said.

Cougars often are reported across the Northland, and a few are even photographed. But there's been little proof to determine if the cats seen here were residents or just wandering through from western states. Other cougars are believed to be released or escaped pets. Very few Minnesota or Wisconsin sightings are ever confirmed, and many are in fact dispelled as hoaxes or mistaken identity.

In this case, Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologists tracked the 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 it to be the same cougar seen in Champlin.

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 it was the same cougar. 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.

The trek bests the old record of 663 miles held by a Black Hills cougar that ended up in Oklahoma. It also was the first cougar ever confirmed in Connecticut.

"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."

Since the report of the dead cougar, Connecticut officials have received numerous additional reports of cougars in the state -- all of which have proven false.

Rego and Wydeven surmised the cougar might have crossed from the Upper Peninsula into Canada, then down through New York and into Connecticut. Of course, its exact route will never be known.

The connection between Connecticut and Wisconsin-Minnesota may never have been made if Wydreven

didn't happen to mention to a Connecticut wildlife official that DNA samples should be sent to a lab in Montana.

"I never dreamed it would be one of the same cats we had in Wisconsin,'' he said.

A necropsy on the dead cougar revealed it to be in perfect health before the accident.