VIDEO: Same cat on the prowl?
Dave Larson was hunting coyotes with his two hounds January 23 south of Osakis when the dogs picked up the tracks of a mountain lion.
There'd been reports of a cat in the area since November, and a buddy of Larson's, who also hunts with hounds, had treed the lion earlier in January.
The tracks Larson encountered late that cold January morning appeared to be at least 12 hours old, but his two hounds only went about a quarter-mile before they jumped the cat bedded down in some grass and treed it 50 yards later.
Mountain lions, also commonly referred to as cougars, are protected in Minnesota and can't be hunted, but Larson, a longtime hound hunter, used his smartphone to take several photos and a video clip of the cat in the tree.
"He was only about 20 feet from me where I was standing taking the video," said Larson, of Osakis. "He wasn't concerned about me at all."
Larson's one regret, he says, is that he missed getting video of what happened next, when the cat "bailed out of that tree" and back up a larger tree nearby with the hounds in pursuit. The cat was still in the tree when Larson called off the dogs and turned his hunting attentions to a new area.
"It was thrilling," he said.
Larson's encounter is the most recent in a handful of documented mountain lion sightings that occur in Minnesota each year. Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the Department of Natural Resources, said Minnesota doesn't have a breeding population of mountain lions, and as a result, doesn't study cats in the state.
That only adds to the mystery when sightings occur. In every case, the lions that have been confirmed - and most of them aren't - are young males passing through in search of new territory and a mate.
Typically, they're gone within days, which makes the sighting near Osakis unusual.
"He'd be pretty easy to find," Larson said. "I'm pretty confident if he's still there, I could tree that thing in a couple of hours."
The assumption is the cat Larson encountered is the same lion that showed up on a nearby trail camera two months earlier. Steve Loch, an independent biologist from Babbitt, Minn., who closely tracks mountain lion reports across the country, said it's rare for a cat in Minnesota to stay in one place for more than a few days.
The only other example, Loch said, was a radio-collared male cat that wandered east from South Dakota late in 2004. That cat eventually passed a few miles west of Grand Forks before crossing the Red River and ending up in a remote part of Roseau River Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota. It stayed there from January through mid-March before disappearing off the radar, possibly into Canada.
Loch says deep snow and a nearby deer herd were factors in that cat's decision not to move. The mountain lion near Osakis, by comparison, didn't have to contend with snow until late January.
"We just haven't had that kind of experience," Loch said. "This is the most interesting cat that I've worked with or thought about or considered."
Lion populations in South Dakota and western North Dakota have been increasing since the mid- to late-1990s, and the cats wandering through Minnesota are thought to be transient males moving east from the Black Hills or the Badlands.
Jonathan Jenks, a professor and research biologist at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D., began studying mountain lions in the Black Hills in the late 1990s. At that time, Jenks said, officials from the state's Department of Game, Fish and Parks estimated the population of the elusive animals at 15 to 20 cats.
More recently, estimates have put South Dakota's population as high as 250, Jenks said, and researchers are tracking more than 40 cats with collars in the Black Hills.
The ability to track the radio-collared lions has confirmed the ability of the cats, especially young males, to travel long distances.
But without radio-collar data, no one knows where those cats go.
"A cat on the move is virtually impossible to keep up with," said Loch, who can rattle off reports of mountain lion sightings the way most people can remember what they had for dinner the previous day. "No matter what anyone says, we just don't know enough about where these things are moving from."
That's why Loch says he'd like to collect a DNA sample from the cat recently treed near Osakis.
"I don't know where it came from; I don't know what gender it is," Loch said. "I want to know the answer to this. I'm real curious."
Given the eastward expansion that's occurred, no one can say whether mountain lions will establish a resident population in Minnesota.
"There are some places I'm absolutely convinced they couldn't make it," Loch said. "We've got road density and people density. ... But there might be some places that they could."
One thing's for certain, few wild creatures in this part of the world generate more interest.
"They're an incredible species," Jenks said. "And for the most part, they just want to get away from people."