BY MARTIN LUNDEEN
Burnett County Sentinel
Last Updated: Wednesday, December 06th, 2006 12:17:17 PM
SIREN-- Rumors of pumas in Burnett County have circulated for years, but solid evidence indicating the presence of one of the big cats may soon be forthcoming.
Nov. 12 may have seemed like just another evening for St. Croix Tribal Police dispatchers until they saw a large four-legged animal sauntering across their parking lot.
“I was just sitting here in front of the computers talking to Lt. AJ Kagas, and I thought he might have brought his dog in and it was just passing through – you see dogs go by here [on the security cameras] all the time,” said dispatcher Ray Heilman, “I walked outside to see what it was and there was nothing there.
Heilman continued: “Officer Ronzoni was entering his vehicle and before he had gotten in, there it was in the woods right behind him.”
And while all sorts of wildlife inhabit eastern Burnett County, there was something about the animal which immediately arrested Heilman’s attention.
“Something didn’t look right — didn’t look like a dog through the camera view but as it came closer I noticed that the tail was really long on this thing.”
Intrigued, Heilman decided to take a closer look, “And so I went outside and came around the building. I shocked it as much as it startled me, and I just took off running into the building!” Heilman said.
As well as Nov. 12, sightings were also reported during the prior week in the area of Cranberry Marsh Road, and hunters may have spotted tracks during deer season.
Still, the encounter at Police Headquarters remains the most reliable.
Officials at the DNR are understandably reluctant to confirm or deny the animal’s presence without photographic evidence, or having seen it with their own eyes.
“Well, my take is there probably is a cougar running around,” said Game Warden Paul Martin. “I personally, nor has the department had any sightings or tracks, but based on what we’re hearing and a few folks who’ve said they’ve seen it, and who should know the difference between that and another critter — so, it may be around.”
Tapes from a security camera which may have captured the creature on film are only viewed periodically, leaving any chance of visual confirmation for an unknown date in the future.
In the meantime, the only concrete evidence of the cat’s presence is a set of tracks outside St. Croix Tribal Police headquarters.
“We did have tracks outside the office here,” confirmed Kangas. “They were shown to Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) wardens, and they verified that those were indeed tracks of a cougar.”
“While I’ve never actually seen a cougar track, I did see tracks that had no claws present, were 3.5 inches wide, so it’s possible it could be a cougar,” said GLIFWC Warden Matt Martin who examined the tracks left by the mystery animal.
There’s been some sightings west of this area in Minnesota, and one of the Dakotas for hunting. “South Dakota held their first legal cougar hunt last year so it’s certainly a possibility,” Matt Martin acknowledged.
“It’s kind of strange it was on the reservation, because there are a lot of dogs and cougars don’t like dogs,” he added.
Even if the animal does turn out to be a cougar, this cannot be proven by tracks alone. “Without any pics or videotapes it’s impossible to prove that’s what was seen around the Tribal Police Center,” said Matt Martin, “I just found the track — I can’t be sure what it was because I didn’t see the animal that made it.”
Northwestern Wisconsin lies at the outskirts of the cougar’s range before they were nearly hunted to extinction. Thus officials did not rule out the fact the animal may have been a pet which escaped or was turned loose by its owner.
“Very frequently there’s a lot of people who have pets they don’t want to take care of anymore; they get too expensive and they don’t want to pay for them, or they turn aggressive,” said one official.
“They have done a study in Minnesota where they found four to five people have pet tigers. There’s a wild pet trade out there, and once people have problems they set them free. When it’s a domestic animal getting loose, it’s not going to be afraid of people. They’ll associate people with being fed, and nobody wants to stare a big cat in the face,” the source said.
Every source contacted on the matter offered different information as to the situation, but they all kept returning to one very important fact: “It’s a protected species, and you definitely don’t want to shoot it!”
While of course the idea of being attacked by a cougar is utterly terrifying, a sober look at the statistics regarding such attacks shows the odds of a cougar attack are exceedingly slim.
Using numbers extrapolated from Dr. Paul Beier’s 1991 paper “Cougar attacks on humans in the United States and Canada, 1890-1990,” an average of less than one [.6 in fact] fatal attack took place each year between 1970 and 1991.
During the same period of time, domestic dogs were annually responsible for an average of 20 deaths, and lightning killed around 80 people a year.
So, while a cougar is a powerful animal very capable of causing harm to humans or pets, the odds of that happening are extremely low.
As for Paul Martin’s advice to anyone who should happen upon such an animal: “Give it its space, and be glad to have seen it, because you probably won’t again. My safety tip is, leave it alone.”