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Here, kitty, kitty: Mountain lions in Minnesota

A mountain lion lounges in a cottonwood tree during the heat of the day south of Golden, Colo. Flickr photo by Justin Shoemaker, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.1 / 2
Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek2 / 2

In early December an individual mountain lion made the news throughout Minnesota. The cat was allegedly struck and killed by a vehicle on a road not far from the small town of Nimrod, a quaint village nestled alongside the beautiful Crow Wing River in Wadena County.

This was the second mountain lion killed on a Minnesota roadway since 2009 when, in the City of Bemidji, a young couple driving their vehicle on Carr Lake Road hit a lion near the bridge between Carr and Marquette lakes. Yours truly was able to examine the dead cat the following day.

The animal was a young 110-pound male that, through an exhaustive necropsy and other specialized testing techniques, was determined to have likely originated from western North Dakota.

That mountain lions show up in Minnesota should no longer be a surprise to most Minnesotans. After all, our state borders two states — North Dakota and South Dakota — that have healthy breeding populations of these unique felids. Mountain lions can easily survive in Minnesota relatively undetected, given our state's vast amount of forestland and other remote, dense habitats.

Still, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is often accused of denying the presence or occurrence of mountain lions in the state. Quite the opposite is true, actually. In fact you can find on DNR's website a webpage devoted to the mountain lion, titled, "Cougars in Minnesota." The first paragraph of the webpage reads: "The cougar — sometimes referred to as a mountain lion or puma — was found throughout most of Minnesota prior to European settlement, though never in large numbers. Today, they are rarely seen but occasionally do appear."

Despite countless unverified reports of mountain lion sightings each year in Minnesota, a number of confirmed sightings are indeed recorded. And with the popularity of trail cameras that are used by hunters and hobbyists nearly everywhere nowadays, mountain lions are also occasionally captured in photographs and videos.

What is not known, however, is if a breeding population of mountain lions exists in Minnesota. Contrary to popular opinion, there has never been a documented case of a breeding population of mountain lions in the state, much less verified sightings of female mountain lions with kittens. This is not to say that it couldn't happen (a breeding population) it just hasn't been verified and recorded.

It has been shown that the majority of mountain lions that occasionally wander into parts of Minnesota are mostly two and half year old males from the Black Hills or Badlands. As well, there have been a few cases that some mountain lions observed in Minnesota and other atypical locales were captive cats that had either been purposely released by their human handlers or had escaped captivity.

Mountain lions are the second largest wild native cat in the Western Hemisphere. The jaguar, rarely observed north of Mexico, is larger. Male mountain lions can be as long as nine feet in total length, which includes its three-foot long tail, and can attain a shoulder height of 30 inches. While records exist of 200-pound individual male mountain lions, mature males typically weigh from 150 to 180 pounds while females are somewhat smaller.

Deer are the primary prey of mountain lions. An adult lion will kill one deer every seven to 10 days and consume around 50 deer per year. Like most wild cats, with the exception of African lions, mountain lions hunt in solitude and do not form prides. The only time mountain lions hunt together is when a female takes her kittens along to teach them the skills they need in order to survive on their own.

Mountain lions do appear in Minnesota from time to time, yet they will probably always be a rare occurrence despite abundant habitat and prey. Even where mountain lions are abundant throughout their principal range of western United States, few people ever actually observe them.

And while I have encountered and followed mountain lion tracks in the snow and mud within the Colorado Rockies, I have yet to observe a living mountain lion in the wild. I truly hope to someday see one of these fascinating creatures. Indeed, the sleek and secretive mountain lion is unique to only North America, Minnesota included, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

For more information about mountain lions in Minnesota: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/cougar/index.html