The Cougar Files
The caller figured it was either a wild turkey or, more likely, a mountain lion that was causing his dog to bark--wildly. Whatever it was, he told veteran Washington County game warden Wayne Eller, he'd seen something out there. Could somebody swing by and check it out?
Since a jogger had called about a creature resembling a shaved raccoon and another citizen had reported some kind of animal that looked like a big black cat lapping spilled blood near a butcher shop--both incidents in the Hugo area, an hour north of the Twin Cities--Eller's phone has been ringing like a boiling teapot.
And Eller is steaming: "I want current leads on actual sightings!" Of the various reports of catlike beasts that have surfaced around Hugo lately, he credits just one as having any legitimacy. That was when his deputy sheriff, Jerry Cusick, spotted a good-sized ebony cat sporting a three-foot tail--one signature trait of the mountain lion--at around 10:30 p.m. on June 11. The animal crossed in front of Cusick's headlights while he was patrolling near Lutz Cuts, the town butcher shop reported on earlier.
A Minnesota mountain lion? Could be. "The more I've talked to Jerry," Eller says, "the more it sounded too small to be an adult." But, he adds after a moment's thought, "it could have been an immature one." For that matter, Eller claims that he himself has caught wind of one cat's scream, as he lay in wait for deer poachers. Whether you know the cats as mountain lion or cougars, they've reportedly been glimpsed over the years by residents and hunters all the way from the state's southeastern reaches to its upper woods (one is said to have been captured on video in the back yard of a Warroad family, near the Canadian border).
Bill Berg fields his share of calls from folks who tell him they, too, have heard screams in the night. Berg isn't a counselor for insomniacs or those suffering from nightmares. For nearly a quarter-century, the Department of Natural Resources research biologist has been the archivist for information on what may be Minnesota's rarest and largest wild cat. Keeping track of the cougar--if, in fact, it is really out there--has never been part of Berg's job description: He gets paid to study grouse, fur-bearing animals, and common predators. Asked why he does it, he sounds a bit like he's been caught with his hand in the cookie jar: "It's, uh, kind of fun just keeping track."
A lot of people have learned of Berg's big-cat interest, so they call him with their stories--hundreds of them. Berg tries to dissuade most of them. The screams they heard, he'll tell them, probably came from something else--an owl, maybe, or a bobcat. And he tends to discount most of the accounts from people who claim to have actually seen a cougar with their own eyes, writing off the animal in question as a wolf, fisher, or dog on the loose.
The more credible sightings, though, are of cats with long tails, black coats, and, often, bounding stride patterns. "I get skeptical," Berg says, "but it's not impossible"--mainly because every once in a while a caller has a convincing tale for the Grand Rapids-based scientist. "When I started live-trapping wolves, coyotes, bobcats, and fishers over 20 years ago, we were getting a few reports of cougars. And some of them were really good reports," Berg, who has had a lifelong fascination with predators, recalls. "We just started throwing them in a file and once in a while we'd follow up on them. We even set a few traps."
One time, Berg goes on, "when we were still live-trapping coyotes and bobcats, the old trapper that worked for me snagged one. He came back to me and said there was this big cat leaping at him from behind the bushes, and he couldn't handle the drug gun by himself. This is a guy that had trapped 100 to 150 coyotes and drugged them. He'd handled bobcats and wolves by himself. He said this big tan cat was lunging at him and he knew it was a cougar.
"By the time we got there the trap was gone and we followed the drag marks. If you'd harnessed five timber wolves, they wouldn't be able to do that. We eventually found the trap, and it had pulled out of it."
Over time Berg's file thickened and word got out that he was determined to settle the question of whether mountain lions include Minnesota in their stomping grounds. It wasn't long before he came across Milt Stenlund, a DNR wildlife biologist who'd retired in the 1980s: "He had a file on cougar sightings going back into the 1940s. It turned out to be quite an exhaustive file, and I've got all this history."
With 50 years' worth of cougar sightings in the DNR's possession, it would seem debate about the cats' presence in Minnesota might have quieted down. Not so. In the mid-1980s the state's official position on mountain lions was that they didn't live in these parts. In 1988 Dr. Elmer Birney, curator of mammals at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum, weighed in on the big cats when he authored a chapter in the book Minnesota's Endangered Flora and Fauna. "There certainly is no convincing evidence that mountain lions breed or permanently reside in Minnesota," he wrote. "It is equivocal whether or not even one has walked on Minnesota soil since the turn of the century." The DNR, which published the volume, concluded that cougars didn't exist within the state and, in a rather odd move, placed the species under the heading of "Special Concern."
Since then Birney has come around to Berg's way of thinking. "I'm convinced now some of these sightings are bona fide," Birney says today. "There are wanderers that go through the state. A lady from out near Champlin called me a few years ago. She said the mailman or the postman or the gas man, I don't remember, saw one laying in the grass near her house." What's more, he adds, "There is evidence that a female passed through the state with her kittens."
Berg's archive, which includes two videotapes of what look to be cougars within Minnesota boundaries--one starring both an adult and a juvenile--and the reported capture of one by the DNR in Worthington in the mid-1990s, no doubt helped change Birney's mind. The sighting of a cougar by a DNR information officer near New Ulm earlier this year may finally graduate the animal from its X-file status to just another (albeit rare) example of Minnesota wildlife.
That conclusion was echoed during another round of sightings this summer around Hugo. "They describe them to me in a believable way--the size, color, and tail," game warden Eller says. "I received a phone call from a land surveyor. He saw one scurrying across a field just a half a mile from where I'd been sitting in a field the night before."
The reports cited by Eller, Berg, and Birney all occurred in outstate Minnesota. Could it be that the wild cougar enjoys a bit of the city life? Metro DNR wildlife managers Cathy Don Carlos and Bob Welch say no. They've followed up on dozens of urban cougar calls and unearthed nary a track or dropping--and only one visual image: security-camera footage of what appeared to be a mountain lion sauntering around a Fingerhut Companies parking lot in suburban Plymouth in 1997. The two are convinced that, if indeed cougars have been spotted in the cities, the cats weren't native; rather, like the one caught on film, they are probably domesticated cats that escaped from the kennels of private owners. They figure, too, that the Hugo creatures were likewise tame animals, though where the cats came from is anybody's guess.
Bill Berg, who says he is currently keeping track of four elusive cougars prowling the state, thinks he knows: "I don't think we ever lost our wild population."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.