Caledonia, Wis. Anna Lashley can’t forget her surprise when she looked out her kitchen window three years ago just south of Milwaukee and spotted what she believes was a cougar.
“I looked up and there’s this lion in the back yard, and I thought it must have gotten away from the zoo,” she said. “I called the zoo, and they said they hadn’t lost one.”
Since then, she’s seen several cougars — also known as mountain lions and pumas — most recently in March. She’s not alone. Although the animals were wiped out in most of the eastern U.S. a century ago, they have recently shown up again, migrating from the Black Hills of South Dakota into places like Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.
A cougar was shot and killed by police in Bossier City, La., in December. In April 2008 Chicago police shot and killed a 122-pound cougar in the city’s North Side. And in 2007, the first documented cougar in Kansas in more than 100 years was killed near Medicine Lodge.
Aside from a small population in south Florida, central Texas has been the eastern boundary of the cougar’s customary breeding range.
But now Wisconsin game managers get scores of reported sightings each year. They try to determine which are false, which are other animals such as bobcats, and which are cougars.
Only two cougars have been confirmed in the state. The cougar killed in Chicago was seen and left clear tracks in the snow months earlier in the Milton area of Wisconsin’s Rock County, 100 miles away, in January 2008. Bear hunters chased the second into a tree near Spooner in Barron County in March. It was photographed but it fled after an unsuccessful attempt to tranquilize it and attach a tracking collar.
Ken Jonas, a wildlife biologist supervisor with the state Department of Natural Resources in Hayward, said the only ways to confirm sightings are with photos, good tracks or other physical evidence. In the case of the confirmed sightings, blood, hair, urine and droppings were recovered.
Researchers learned a lot from the cat that roamed the Milton area for three months before being shot, said Eric Anderson, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“Here’s a cat wandering across the landscape of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, a fairly heavily populated area, and nobody saw it,” he said.
Male cougars like that have been moving out from the Black Hills. Anderson said an estimated 20 to 25 young males are believed to leave there each year, looking for females as well as food.
He expects Wisconsin will eventually have resident cougars.
But if the state had a breeding population now, some cougars would be killed on roads and found feeding on livestock and more evidence would be found in areas where the animals spent time, Jonas said.
Still, he said people venturing outdoors should be aware of potential dangers. He noted the state also has black bears and a healthy wolf population, and even a deer in rut can pose a threat.
The Lashleys said they have nothing against cougars, but they want people to be aware of their presence.
Sandy Kenner said she has no doubts the cats are here.
“I’m totally convinced. I wouldn’t jog at night anymore,” she said. “It doesn’t scare me. Just don’t be stupid.”