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Cougar captured on video near Voyageurs National Park

While cougars were native to Minnesota before European settlers arrived, there's little evidence they are staying or reproducing in the Northland today.

cougar near Voyageurs National Park
This cougar was captured walking at night by a trail camera placed by the Voyageurs Wolf Project. The video was taken Oct. 20 just south of Voyageurs National Park.
Contributed / Voyageurs Wolf Project
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ORR — A video trail camera in northern St. Louis County recently captured a cougar walking along a forest road.

The video of the big cat was taken just south of Voyageurs National Park on Oct. 20 as part of the research efforts of the Voyageurs Wolf Project. It is the first cougar they have verified in years of trail camera observations.

While some people claim cougars are common in the region, the fact that only one of the project’s nearly 200 cameras has captured a cougar image is telling of just how rare they are, said Thomas Gable, lead researcher for the Voyageurs Wolf Project.

“Badgers are pretty rare in our area, but we have several images of badgers, along with lynx and wolves and bears and everything else in the woods,’’ Gable noted. “We have literally hundreds of thousands of images, and, for this to be the first and only cougar so far, is pretty interesting.”

Gable said he's not a cougar expert, but that the animal appeared to be adult-sized.

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Steve Windels, National Park Service biologist at Voyageurs, said there has never been a verified cougar sighting within the boundaries of Voyageurs National Park since the park’s establishment in 1975.

"There have been credible/verified reports of cougars in the area outside the park over the years, and more recently trail camera photos of a cougar were captured by a current and former NPS employee on their property just south of the park,'' Windels noted. "It’s possible this is the same cougar."

Confirmed cougar sightings in the Northland are not common, but they occur almost every year, wildlife officials say, as the animals move through from western states.

While cougars were native to Minnesota before European settlers arrived, there's little evidence they are staying or reproducing in the Northland today. Some are confirmed in Minnesota and Wisconsin using DNA evidence from scat and images from trail cameras.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says most cougars here are believed to be wandering young male cats pushed out of their home range. Most are believed to be passing through, originally from the western Dakotas, searching for female cat companionship. Other cougars confirmed in the region have turned out to be released or escaped pets.

Cougar sightings across Northland

Wildlife officials say most reports of cougars in our region turn out to be something else entirely — everything from yellow dogs and house cats, to bobcats, lynxes, coyotes and wolves, to even fishers and martens. Bobcats and lynxes are common in Minnesota, but are small, about 25 pounds or less, with short tails.

Female cougars can hit 100 pounds or more, males up to 200 pounds, with tails up to 2 feet long. Tail and body combined are nearly 6 feet long.

The Minnesota DNR reports there have been about 60 verified cougar sightings in the state since 2004. Some of the more memorable sightings include:

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  • In December 2021, a trail camera captured a cougar near Baudette in northwestern Minnesota.
  • In August 2020, a dead cougar was found along a freeway in the Twin Cities suburb of Bloomington. The DNR later confirmed it was wild.
  • In July 2020, North Shore photographer Ryan Pennesi captured images of a cougar walking along a ridge near Tofte using a trail camera.
  • On Jan. 10, 2020, a trail camera captured video of a cougar near Nebish, Minnesota, about 20 miles north of Bemidji.
  • In 2019, trail cameras caught cougars in two locations in northern Wisconsin's Bayfield County. First, on Aug. 13, a trail camera in the Red Cliff area captured a cougar with a dead coyote in its mouth. Then, on Aug. 20, a deer hunter's trail camera in southeastern Bayfield County took photos of a big cat as it took down and dragged away a deer near the White River. 
  • In December 2018, Minnesota DNR conservation officer Randy Posner recovered a dead cougar along a road near Park Rapids, apparently struck by a vehicle.
  • In November 2011, three people reported eyeballing a cougar in Rice Lake just outside Duluth and at Duluth's Lester Park ski trails.
  • A cougar that roamed across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2009 and 2010 wound up struck and killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011. That cougar, confirmed by DNA left in each location, is believed to have started its journey in South Dakota's Black Hills and may have set a record for farthest journey by a land mammal.
The cat is likely from the western Dakotas, the closest reproducing population of cougars to Minnesota, a DNR biologist said.

What to do if a cougar finds you

Human encounters with cougars are extremely rare. Even in California, which has a population of more than 5,000 of the big cats, a person is 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a cougar.

Most cougars will avoid confrontation. The Minnesota DNR suggests that, if you encounter a cougar:

  • Face the cougar directly. Raise your arms to make yourself appear larger and speak loudly and firmly. This behavior is in direct conflict with a cougar's tendency to hunt by stalking and attacking from ambush. Do not run, crouch or lie on the ground.
  • Do not shoot the animal. Cougars are a protected species and may only be killed by a licensed peace officer or authorized permit holder.
  • Report the encounter or sighting to a conservation officer or local law enforcement authorities as soon as possible so evidence such as photographs, tracks, hair and scat can be located, identified, confirmed and documented.
Yet another cougar has been spotted in the Northland, this time captured on a trail camera in the woods in Lake County, not far off Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior.

About the Voyageurs Wolf Project

The Voyageurs Wolf Project is an ongoing effort to learn more about wolves and their prey in and around Voyageurs National Park, especially during summer months, when little had been studied about wolf behavior.

The project started in 2012 as an effort of the National Park Service, with Gable as a graduate student helper. Since then, researchers have trapped and collared dozens of wolves from more than 15 packs, and then investigated tens of thousands of GPS points where the animals roam, hunt, eat, build their dens and sleep, and captured thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of video of wolf behavior from trail cameras. The project also uses dozens of trail cameras to capture wolves and dozens of other wildlife species.

Voyageurs researchers strike gold with metal beaver ear tags found in wolf scat.

The project was the first to document Minnesota wolves catching and eating fish out of a stream, wolves using blueberries as a primary summer food and wolves intentionally ambushing their prey, waiting for hours along beaver trails for a beaver to show up, the first confirmation that wolves don't just chase what they kill and eat. Their research also explained how wolves alter the landscape they live in by limiting beaver numbers and reducing beaver ponds, keeping land from being flooded.

The Voyageurs Wolf Project, officially a realm of the University of Minnesota, has been funded with grants from the state's Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, but this year also raised money from direct contributions from citizens. The project's Facebook page at facebook.com/ VoyageursWolfProject has nearly 200,000 followers.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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