A Lion in the Path

The cougar's comeback gets stopped dead in its tracks

Two months ago a Cargill employee named Kerry Kammann discovered a freshly killed white-tailed deer on company grounds in a wooded area in Savage, a south-metro suburb. His curiosity piqued by nearby paw prints--as "big as a Whopper," he later told the Star Tribune--Kammann and some co-workers rigged up a motion-activated camera next to the kill site. Soon thereafter, they had vivid evidence as to the deer's cause of death: a photograph of a handsome, healthy-looking mountain lion feasting on its carcass.

Mountain lions, which are also known as cougars, were long thought to have been extirpated from Minnesota in the 1880s. In the 120 years since, there have been sporadic sightings. But typically those sightings are explained away as cases of mistaken identity, or as escaped pet lions, or as lone wild animals simply passing through. Here, at last, was a strong suggestion that at least one lion had successfully resettled in the Minnesota River valley.

There was something undeniably exhilarating about it; this secretive and solitary predator thriving in our midst. Could it be that that in the face of the relentless degradation of the natural world, the cougar might reclaim its rightful spot in the food chain and thin those abnormally enormous suburban deer herds? How glorious.

Back to reality.

On the evening of May 30, Bloomington police received a call from a couple out for an evening stroll in Moir Park, which abuts the Minnesota River not far from the Cargill site. The couple had spotted a cougar in the underbrush some 30 feet off the trail. Two patrol officers were dispatched to the scene. "They tried to shoo the thing away. They shined their flashlights on it, and threw wood chips at it. But the thing wouldn't budge. It just got more defensive and stood its ground," says Lt. Jim Ryan, patrol supervisor with the Bloomington Police Department.

After talking with their sergeant, the officers contacted Lt. Ryan to decide on a course of action. Given the impending nightfall, the animal's failure to retreat, and the absence of a readily accessible tranquilizer, they made a judgment call: Officer Tom Williams retrieved an AR 15 assault rifle from his squad car and fired eight times.

In the week since the shooting, Bloomington police have received a smattering of e-mails and phone calls questioning the drastic action. Ryan's assessment? The killing was regrettable but necessary. "With most wild animals, their nature is to retreat, unless they're cornered or with cubs," he explains. "There was atypical behavior by this cat."

Maybe, maybe not, says Lynn Sadler, executive director of the California-based Mountain Lion Foundation. "I don't really want to second-guess the police, because I wasn't there. But the fact that the animal didn't retreat when they threw things at it doesn't necessarily mean anything. Think of a housecat. When a housecat is really frightened, what does it do? It freezes. Maybe it would have been more effective to have backed off and given the lion a route out."

In California, whose Department of Fish and Game estimates the cougar population at between 2,500 and 5,000, the animals are shot with alarming regularity. In 1990, Proposition 117 banned the sport hunting of cougars, but those that threaten livestock or pets can be killed without legal consequence. Cougars deemed a public-safety hazard are frequently killed as well. On average, according to Sadler, a mountain lion is killed in California every 2.4 days.

The animals' threat to humans is often overstated, according to Chris Papouchis, a conservation biologist with the Mountain Lion Foundation. In the past 111 years, there have been just 16 documented cases in North America of cougars killing people. "Statistically, it's almost insignificant," observes Papouchis. "Look at deaths from lightning strikes, or bees, or domestic dogs--or even incidents of folks out hunting who get killed by deer. There's no comparison."

That said, cougars do occasionally attack people. As more people venture into the wilderness (and as more wilderness is destroyed by development) attacks have become more common. For law enforcement, that can add another ingredient to the mix: a fear of liability. In Southern California, for instance, Orange County paid $1.5 million in damages to a five-year-old girl who in 1986 was mauled by a cougar in a county park.

Last Thursday, Col. Bill Bernhjelm, the director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Enforcement Division, formally delivered the DNR's verdict on the Bloomington incident: Given the animal's "unusual behavior" and proximity to homes and a public hiking trail, the officers had acted appropriately.

The body of the dead cougar is currently undergoing tests at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, where researchers hope to find clues that might explain the animal's behavior. So far, they have found little--no signs of illness or injury, and no evidence it was an escaped or released captive animal. The DNR isn't even sure whether the cougar is the same one that was captured on film in the Cargill parking lot.

The mystery, it seems, will linger.

And what will become of the animal's carcass? "If it's not damaged too badly, it's conceivable that it will be mounted for educational purposes," says DNR spokesman Dennis Stouffer.

For those enchanted by the idea of cougars making a comeback in Minnesota, the news that some local taxidermist may be getting extra business is scant solace.

 
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