Thursday, December 10, 2009

Minnesota: Cougar faces a deadly fate if it stays in town

Cougar faces a deadly fate if it stays in town

A big cat in a populated area is viewed as too dangerous to trap or tranquilize

By Chris Niskanen
cniskanen@pioneerpress.com
Updated: 12/08/2009 11:28:52 PM CST

Here's some advice for the cougar recently spotted in the northern suburbs: Get out of town.

It's a dangerous place for a big cat.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials said Tuesday that they have no plans to try to capture, anesthetize or relocate the cat spotted recently in Champlin.

If the cougar climbs a tree or doesn't flee if found in a public or residential area, it likely will be killed if it poses a public threat, DNR officials say.

A new law this year gives police agencies other than the DNR the explicit power to kill wild animals that pose "an immediate threat to public safety." Because cougar attacks on humans are well documented, local authorities likely would kill the cougar.

"No one enjoys destroying an animal, but we have to put people into these equations," said Dave Schad, director of the DNR's Fish and Wildlife Division. "It would be horrible if a child got mauled or it somehow caused a traffic accident."

Champlin police caught the cougar on videotape from a dashboard camera Saturday night as it slunk among houses and crossed U.S. 169 near the Mississippi River. Ramsey County law enforcement officials received another report in Vadnais Heights about 9 p.m. Monday.

Schad said the DNR doesn't have the manpower to capture or tranquilize the cougar, which would need powerful anesthetics that only a few DNR experts are licensed to use.

A treed cougar could attract onlookers and create traffic problems, which could lead to additional safety issues, he said.

"Cougars are pretty elusive. We get a report one night and another a week later. Maybe this one will find its way out of trouble," Schad said.

Verified cougar sightings are rare in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota. The Champlin videotape is only the fourth confirmed sighting in the state in the past three years, said Dan Stark, a DNR wolf specialist and predator expert.

The most recent sighting was this fall when a cougar was killed by a car near Bemidji. DNR officials still are awaiting test results to determine whether it was a wild or previously captive cat.

Stark said there is no evidence of a breeding population of cougars in Minnesota, but the cats are known to appear periodically. The most likely source is the Black Hills of South Dakota and western North Dakota. South Dakota has a breeding population of 250 cougars; North Dakota has a breeding population of 100.

The Black Hills cougar population has been well-studied using radio collars, and scientists know that young males from the population can travel hundreds of miles in search of new territories. One such cougar with a radio collar was documented in northwestern Minnesota several years ago.

On Tuesday, Stark visited the Champlin neighborhood where the cat was seen to look for clues regarding its origin. DNA from scat or hair can be analyzed and used to determine whether the cat was once captive or is wild.

Stark said he found a 2- to 3-inch chunk of scat that didn't look like dog feces. "It's the right diameter for a large cat, it's segmented and it contains hair, though I can't tell what kind of hair it is," he said.

He found the scat in a back yard near where Champlin police last saw the cat.

The scat will be sent for analysis to a federal lab in Missoula, Mont., but the results won't be known for months.

On the videotape, the cougar appeared to have a heavy, sagging belly, suggesting it might be a well-fed captive cat that either escaped or was turned loose, Stark said.

The nation's population of captive cougars, held either privately or in zoos, is estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 animals, Stark said.

He said the recent snowfall provides an opportunity to track the cat if the public finds any tracks, but the DNR isn't actively searching it, he said.

Roads and highways pose a threat to cougars in populated areas, Stark said. About 25 cougars are killed annually in car collisions in the Black Hills.

"There is a theory that cougars respond to vehicle movement," he said. "They tend to get hit by vehicles."

Stark said he's heading a DNR project to provide the public with more information about cougars and what their presence means to the public in Minnesota.

Given that cougars are showing up with increased frequency in Minnesota, "it seems likely we're going to see an increase in this kind of activity," Stark said of cougar sightings.

It is possible that within the next decade, the state could have a breeding population of the big cats.

"There are still a lot of unknowns about this cat," Stark said of the Champlin sighting. "Is it someone's pet that got loose or is it a wild cat that came from somewhere else?"

# Stay calm. Don't turn your back, crouch, play dead or run. These actions can prompt a predatory instinct in the cougar to attack.

# Try to make yourself look large by raising your jacket, a backpack or bicycle.

# Talk to the cougar in a confident, calm voice. Back away slowly and keep your eyes on the cougar. Avoid sudden movement.

# If it becomes aggressive, speak louder or yell and throw things in its direction.

# If you are attacked by a cougar, fight back. There is evidence that fighting back will break off an attack.

# If one is near, use a stick or metal pipe to ward off an attack.

— Minnesota DNR

If you have pets and you live near a cougar sighting:

# Don't leave pet unattended outdoors.

# Don't leave pet food or feed pets outdoors.

# Don't allow your pets to run loose or beyond your control.

# Don't try to break up a fight between your pet and a cougar.

— Minnesota DNR

If you see a cougar or cougar tracks:

# Report it to local law enforcement officials. If you see a possible cougar track, take a picture and e-mail to info@dnr.state.mn.us or call 888-646-6367.

# For information on cougars: www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/cougar

http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_13952032

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org

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