Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wisc. DNR out to improve handling of cougar sightings in future

November 29, 2009

Outdoors: DNR out to improve handling of cougar sightings in future

By Jim Lee
Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers

MADISON -- On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the Department of Natural Resources will conduct a "Cougar Tracking, Ecology and Behavior Workshop" at Crex Meadows Center near Grantsburg in Polk County.

How quickly attitudes change.

It seems only yesterday that department policy was to summarily dismiss all cougar sightings in Wisconsin as either escaped pets or viewer misidentification.

Not anymore. After a cougar was sighted, trailed by hounds and treed near Spooner in March of this year with DNR personnel in the pursuing party, a new approach was obviously warranted. It was the second verified cougar sighting in the state within a year.

Dr. James C. Halfpenny, a Montana-based writer, film maker and lecturer on cougar and other carnivores, is the featured workshop instructor. According to the prospectus, Halfpenny "knows what level of skills it takes to find (carnivore) signs that will 'stand up in a court of law.'"

He is expected to discuss cougar-related topics involving biology, behavior, interactions with humans, pet trade, locating tracks, identifying footprints, verifying presence, collecting evidence, and determining size and sex.

"As western cougar populations saturate and dispersal occurs, the Great Lakes region will continue to experience the occasional (cougar) 'visitor,'" the prospectus notes.

"As wildlife professionals, additional knowledge is needed regarding this species. The public, both rural and urban, will demand it."

John Olson, DNR furbearer expert, said the Spooner cougar was treed by local bear hunters who "wanted the department to verify the presence and existence of this one cougar."

DNR attempts to dart the cougar with a tranquilizer gun were unsuccessful. The animal was able to shake off the effects of a reduced sedative and escape. The department had hoped to fit it with a radio collar and track its movements.

Olson said the agency is unaware of any further cougar sightings in the Spooner area since the failed tranquilizing effort, though 'we received several cougar observations from various locales across the state. None were confirmed."

The workshop should enable DNR personnel to better handle future cougar incidents that appear destined to occur.

Olson said there likely is more than one cougar in the state at the present time. "We've seen young male cougars showing up in the Midwest somewhat more frequently since the establishment of a breeding population in the Black Hills of South Dakota," he said.

"Due to their ability to travel long distances in short periods of time, there's no predicting where or what locale" in Wisconsin would be the most likely place for cougar to appear.

"All (cougar) that we've been able to verify have been young dispersing male cougars here in the Lakes States area," Olson said. "These young males are 'hot wired' for dispersal and will continue to wander in search of another cougar population, especially in search of female cougars.

"However, from research conducted in South Dakota, they've learned female cougars stay put or disperse only short distances from their natal site. The reason for such a difference is adult male cougars defend territories from other male cougars, but protect or at least accept the presence of female cougars primarily for breeding rights."

The most concrete evidence of cougar presence is often found along the nation's roadways. "Wherever a cougar population exists, they're killed on our highways at a high rate," Olson said.

Prior to the Spooner incident, a cougar was spotted near Milton in southern Wisconsin in January of 2008. It was later killed outside a Chicago suburb. In early June of this year, the DNR said late spring tracks found outside a livestock pen on a farm in Pepin County were likely that of a cougar.

The presence of wild cougar has already been documented in the surrounding states of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, according to Wisconsin DNR officials. Cougar supporters in Michigan have sought for years to have wildlife officials verify and acknowledge the presence of cougar in that state.

While the two-day workshop at Crex Meadows is limited to 40 people and aimed at DNR personnel, a few slots may open to the public.

Registration must be made by Monday. For more information, call 715-685-2934 or 608-261-6452. The fee is $115, which does not include lodging.


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