Cougar story gets people talking - and that's no 'lion'GRAND FORKS - If you want to get people worked up, write a story about mountain lions.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald, Worthington Daily Globe
GRAND FORKS - If you want to get people worked up, write a story about mountain lions.
So here goes. …
The interest in mountain lions and their ability to stir the pot was reignited Monday morning, when I walked into the office to hear a voice mail tip that a motorist had struck and killed a cougar on the south side of Bemidji.
A call to the Department of Natural Resources’ regional office in Bemidji confirmed the report, and the ensuing story was among the most widely read items on the Herald’s Web site the rest of the day, topped only by a story from Mandan, N.D., about a man who’d thrown a pot of boiling noodles on his girlfriend.
People like reading about mountain lions — confirmed sightings or not — and they like talking about them, if for no other reason than the cats are elusive, mysterious critters.
That can lead to misinformation, which was readily apparent in the comments several readers posted in response to the online version of the Bemidji cougar story. Almost to a person, they accused the DNR of engaging in some kind of a cover-up about cougars or denying the cats exist in Minnesota.
Some even went so far as to say the DNR has planted cougars in northern Minnesota in a clandestine effort to establish a breeding population. Maybe I’m just too trusting, but I find such claims to be utterly ridiculous (even if they are at least mildly entertaining). We’re talking wildcats here, after all, not walleyes (a species that’s much easier to stock).
It probably won’t convince the skeptics out there, but the DNR says it has no plans to release cougars. Never has, never will.
“No, we’re not releasing cougars,” said Steve Merchant, wildlife programs manager for the DNR in St. Paul, adding in jest: “They’re too hard to catch.”
And that’s no “lion.”
The secretive nature of cougars has a lot to do with the rumors and misinformation, I suspect. Reports of mountain lions aren’t unusual on either side of the Red River, but confirmed sightings generally are as elusive as the cats themselves.
Case in point: In mid-August, conservation officer Stuart Bensen, Erskine, Minn., cited an incident in the DNR’s weekly conservation officers’ report in which he’d received a call about a pair of mountain lions in Polk County.
The cats turned out to be two yellow Labs on the loose.
Even though many cougar reports go unconfirmed (or turn out to be yellow Labs), Merchant said there also have been numerous documented sightings in all corners of the state. Most involve younger male cats likely dispersing from western states.
The cougar killed by the car Sept. 18 near Bemidji was a sub-adult male about 2 years old that fits the pattern.
There’s no cover-up at work on the DNR’s part, Merchant said.
“A lot of people say we’re in complete denial that cougars exist in Minnesota,” he said. “That’s not true. What we have been unable to ascertain is whether there’s a breeding population. We just don’t have any evidence to suggest we would.”
Merchant said the stories about clandestine cougar-stocking campaigns aren’t new. He heard similar claims several years ago as manager at Lac Qui Parle Wildlife Management Area in southwestern Minnesota.
Nor are the stories unique to Minnesota. Officials for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department had to quash misinformation in November 2006, after a caller to a talk radio show claimed he’d seen a “Game and Fish person” driving a trailer filled with the wild cats somewhere in the western part of the state.
The story was completely erroneous, but it spread faster than a cougar pounces on an unsuspecting prey.
“There’s something about this animal that captivates people, and there are lots of conspiracy theories out there,” Merchant said. “We hear that — I wouldn’t call it routinely — but we’ve heard it enough to know it’s out there.”
There’s no doubt that cougars captivate people’s imaginations, Merchant says.
“What really fascinates me is when people hear something they can’t explain,” he said. “They’ll hear a cry in the woods and instantly it’s a cougar. It’s not a screech owl, and it’s not a rabbit that’s getting eaten by whatever, but it’s a cougar. I don’t know why people go to that, but they do.”
Sometimes, not even visual proof will convince them otherwise.
“We’ve corresponded with people that are just absolutely certain in their mind that they’ve seen a cougar and will send trail cam photos,” Merchant said. “We looked at one last year, and it was two fox pups. It was plain as day on this trail camera, but it was at night, and this person was bound and determined to call it a cougar.”
And let’s face it, if people can’t properly identify an image captured on a trail camera, how can they be sure the flash they see running across the road or through the trees is actually a cougar? Without verifiable evidence, such claims at best lack credibility and at worst are completely erroneous.
Merchant said “cougar hysteria,” for lack of a better phrase, isn’t unique to Minnesota and North Dakota, either. It’s happening throughout the Midwest as the animals expand their range.
Some of the reports are credible, some of them aren’t.
Blame the mountain lion mystique.
“They are elusive animals, and even where cougars are common in the West, it’s rare to see a cougar,” Merchant said. “You almost never see them.”