This cougar was captured by a professional “camera trap” trail camera recently near Minnesota’s North Shore. Cougars are not common in the Northland but a few are confirmed to visit the region nearly every year. (Ryan Pennesi photograph)
Written By: John Myers
Yet another cougar has been spotted in the Northland, this time captured on a trail camera in the woods in Lake County, not far off Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior.
Ryan Pennesi, who specializes in setting up professional-grade “camera trap” trail cameras, retrieved the image from his camera on July 24 near a mass of hilltop boulders that form a cave.
Pennesi’s cameras had already captured images of bobcats, snowshoe hare, squirrels, porcupine and a black bear all investigating the same cave that appears in the cougar image — a jackpot wildlife corridor for the photographer.
“I had placed the camera in a spot that I knew had attracted bobcats in the past. But I was completely speechless when I saw its much larger cousin, a mountain lion, on the back of the camera when scrolling through. My heart was racing and I have to admit that I glanced over my shoulder on the hike back,” Pennesi told the News Tribune. “I’m excited to know that these wild cats are making use of Minnesota’s wild spaces.”
Nancy Hansen, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager for the North Shore, said the cat in the image is definitely a cougar. She said the setting looks accurate with what Pennesi described as the location, although she didn’t go to the site herself.
“This looks like a real cougar situation,” she said. “Most of the reports we get are not.”
Pennesi’s stunning camera trap images of local wildlife were featured in a February story in the News Tribune. He lives in the woods between Silver Bay and Finland and, when he’s not recovering digital images of wildlife from cameras, he’s a forest restoration specialist for the Superior National Forest based in Tofte.
Cougars, also called mountain lions or pumas, are infrequent visitors to the Northland, but some are seen, and a few are confirmed, just about every year. In fact, the DNR has noted a general increase in verified cougar sightings over the last 16 years, attributed in large part to the plethora of trail cameras in the woods these days but also due to increasing cougar populations in western states, a little cougar crowding that seems to be pushing more of the big cats east, at least for short visits.
“We had some busy cougar years a decade ago, then a few years with very few, and now it seems to be picking up again. We’ve already had nine (verified cougar sightings) this year,” said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the Minnesota DNR.
Stark said the cougar in Pennesi’s photo appears to be a male.
While cougars were native to Minnesota before European settlement, there’s little evidence that they are staying or reproducing in the Northland today. Some are confirmed in Minnesota and Wisconsin using DNA evidence (from scat) and trail cameras. They are believed to be mostly wandering young male cats pushed out of their home range. Most are believed to be passing through, originally from the western Dakotas, searching for female cat companionship. Other cougars confirmed in the region have turned out to be released or escaped pets.
Wildlife officials say most reports of cougars in our region turn out to be something else entirely — everything from yellow labs to bobcat, lynx, coyotes, wolves, house cats and even fisher and marten. Bobcat and lynx are common in Minnesota but are small, about 25 pounds or less, with short tails. Female cougars can hit 100 pounds or more, males up to 200 pounds, with tails up to 2 feet long. Tail and body combined are nearly 6 feet long.
The Minnesota DNR reports that, since 2004, there have been about 50 verified cougar sightings in the state.
Some of the more memorable sightings in the Northland include:
On Jan. 10 this year, Steve Young captured a trail camera video of a cougar near Neebish, Minnesota, about 20 miles north of Bemidji.
Last summer trail cameras caught cougars in two different locations in northern Wisconsin’s Bayfield County. On Aug. 13 a trail camera in the Red Cliff area captured a cougar with a dead coyote in its mouth. Then on Aug. 20 a deer hunter’s trail camera in southeastern Bayfield County took photos of a big cat as it took down and dragged away a deer near the White River. The big cat also appeared on trail camera frames the next two nights. No one knows if it was the same cougar.
In December, 2018 Minnesota DNR Conservation Officer Randy Posner recovered a dead cougar along a road near Park Rapids, Minnesota, apparently struck by a vehicle.
In November, 2011 three different people reported eyeballing a cougar in Rice Lake just outside Duluth and at Duluth’s Lester Park ski trails.
A cougar that roamed across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2009 and 2010 wound up struck and killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011. That cougar — confirmed by DNA left in each location — is believed to have started its journey in South Dakota’s Black Hills and may have set a record for farthest journey by a land mammal.
Human encounters with cougars are extremely rare. Even in California, which has a population of more than 5,000 of the big cats, a person is 1,000 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a cougar. Most cougars will avoid confrontation. The Minnesota DNR suggests that, if you encounter a cougar:
Face the cougar directly, raise your arms to make yourself appear larger and speak loudly and firmly. This behavior is in direct conflict with a cougar’s tendency to hunt by stalking and attacking from ambush. Do not run, crouch or lie on the ground.
Do not shoot the animal. Cougars are a protected species and may only be killed by a licensed peace officer or authorized permit holder.
Report the encounter or sighting to a conservation officer or local law enforcement authorities as soon as possible so evidence such as photographs, tracks, hair and scat can be located, identified, confirmed and documented.