NORTH MANKATO — When Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Supervisor Joe Stangel first saw the photo shot recently of what he was told might be a cougar near Seven Mile Creek Park, he wasn’t sure if what he was seeing was the real thing.
But, based on experience and south-central Minnesota’s history of having no officially confirmed cougar sightings, he had a hunch.
He needed more evidence to render a decision on this sighting. So he asked the trail camera owners for more images from the camera, so he could get a sense of scale. When they provided a photo of a fawn also caught by the trail camera, well ...
“It became very obvious it was a large domestic house cat,” Stangel said.
The false alarm was just the latest in the region’s long history of wondering whether that thing they saw might have been a cougar. And Stangel says cougars probably come through from time to time. Several years ago there was a rash of sightings, including one that was supposedly seen by a North Mankato police officer.
But as for substantiated sightings — which is to say, sightings with verifiable proof, such as photographs or video — Stangel says there are still none.
And he’s not alone.
The nonprofit group The Cougar Network, which studies cougar-habitat relationships, keeps a running tally of confirmed cougar sightings on its website. Its criteria for confirming a cougar sighting is rigid. So-called class 1 confirmations require the carcass of a dead cougar, or photographic or DNA evidence such as hair. Class 2 confirmations require tracks verified by a trained professional, or some other tangible evidence such as prey carcasses, microscopic hair recognition or “a thin-layer chromatography of scat.”
Since the 1990s, when the network began keeping track, there have been no either class 1 or class 2 sightings in the nine-county area.
Still, Stangel says reports come in periodically. So far in 2012, Stangel says they received five reports. Oddly, one of the five this year came in as a black panther sighting. Unless one escaped from a zoo, Stangel says the likelihood of seeing a black panther is extremely remote.
The closest possible large cat that could be mistaken for a black panther, he said, may be a jaguar. But those are rare as well, and mostly reside only in the extreme southwest part of the country near Mexico.
What’s possible in a lot of cases, Stangel says, is that people are seeing a common forest animal from a distance and mistaking it for a cougar.
While it may be hard to believe, Stangel says, otters are sometimes confused for cougars.
“People don’t realize how big otters are,” he said. “They can be up to 5 feet long.”
He said he’s also heard of cases where bears and fishers have been confused for cougars, as well.
There was a case a year ago where a pair of hunters in Jackson shot and killed a cougar. But they found themselves in legal trouble because, in Minnesota, cougars are a protected species.
Locally, many of the sightings Stangel investigates are tracks in the dirt. Every one he’s investigated has wound up being dog tracks.