C.L. Sill

There’ve been several reported mountain lion sightings around Marine on St. Croix, Minn. in the last month. 

The topic was discussed at the town’s June 10 city council meeting after a potential sighting on June 1 in the Savanna area of William O’Brian State Park just north of Marine. 

In areas of the country without well-known lion populations, speculation abounds. Are they here? Are they not? Rumors are like jet fuel when it comes to reclusive critters, and for some reason mountain lions make people particularly eager to believe what they hear. 

“My brother’s, uncle’s, cousin’s, estranged step son ran into one back in 2012 — said it must’ve weighed 600 pounds.” 

The truth of the matter is, mountain lions do occasionally pass through the St. Croix River Valley and there have most certainly been confirmed sightings in the area, but there is no established breeding population in either Minnesota or Wisconsin. Confirmed sightings are almost exclusively identified as young adult males expanding their range in search of a female, according to Dan Stark, the large carnivore specialist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 

“Males, as they mature, leave their native area and disperse,” he said. “They’re seeking an area to find a mate and establish a new territory.” 

The Minnesota DNR began closely monitoring mountain lion observations in around 2007 and has yet to detect a female lion in the state. 

“Males will breed multiple females, so they need a bigger area and are very territorial. They’ll push other males further away, where as a female usually just kind of sets up next to a male’s range,” Stark said. “Their territories are smaller, they don’t need to go as far and there’s not as much competition for range or area as there is with males.” 

Sightings in Minnesota vary widely from year to year.  

“It’s been all over the place,” Stark said. “From two to three a year starting in 2007 to some years having zero, and other years like last year, we had 15.” 

An increase in confirmed sightings could be more cats moving through an area, or could also be due to the increasing popularity of trail cameras. Stark also said oftentimes multiple confirmed sightings end up being one cat passing through a broad area. 

“Last year in Itasca County we had six pictures taken over several weeks,” he said. “And some of those likely were the same cat moving in a direction to the southwest.” 

So where are all these cats coming from if they aren’t breeding in Minnesota and Wisconsin? Almost all the cats present in this area can be traced to the Western Dakotas. 

“We know there are cougar populations established in the Black Hills, the western part of North Dakota and the northwest corner of Nebraska,” Stark said. “That population expanded to around 200 cats in the early to mid 2000s and that’s when we had a first recent observation of a known wild cougar (in Minnesota).” 

That particular lion was radio collared in the Black Hills and passed through Northwest Minnesota before moving into Manitoba, where it was eventually killed. 

The distance young males will travel is astounding. In December 2009 Stark and the DNR documented sightings and obtained DNA samples from a Black Hills cat moving east through the state. 

“From those samples we were also able to connect it to locations in Wisconsin,” he said. “And eventually it got hit by a car in Connecticut.”

That’s 1700 miles as the crow flies from the cats origin in Western South Dakota. 

Although lions are occasionally present in this area, Stark said people often mistake other animals for cougars. 

“We get a lot of photos submitted that are bobcats,” Stark said. “People may not be able to see the tail, and they can be pretty big and muscular and look similar if the light is hitting them right. That’s probably the most common thing that is mistaken (for a lion), but also sometimes house cats or fox.” 

The landscape of Minnesota and Wisconsin, particularly the northern half of both states, is ideal territory for lions. Vast tracks of densely wooded land and minimal human contact would be a good fit for a more regular lion presence, but Stark said a breeding population of lions in the Northwoods doesn’t seem likely. 

“There aren’t limitations to habitat or conditions, the limitation is females,” he said. “We also have a pretty well established wolf population and we don’t know how that plays into cougars getting established either.” 

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