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A Closer Look at Rare Wildlife Sightings

Karen Laubenstein
US Fish and Wildlife Service

You never know what kind of wildlife you might run into when you’re out and about in the Northwoods.

In today’s Wildlife Matters, DNR Wildlife Biologist Jeremy Holtz says some sightings are easier to prove than others. 

I hear from a lot of people who wish to report sightings of what I will refer to as unusual wildlife. For example, every October I tend to hear from several people who have seen a moose. This year we are a little ahead of schedule; I have had several moose observation reports in the last month. These reports are easy to confirm; oftentimes there are digital photos of the animal as well as its tracks. Moose can travel very long distances, but often once I hear from one person about a moose I can expect to hear from others. Even though moose may not be considered a resident wildlife species, we have evidence of them reproducing here, because there are tracks and photos of young moose calves as well. There are source populations of moose, from Minnesota, Canada, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan which probably supply us with the occasional infusion of moose on a fairly regular basis. Moose are a good example of a relatively uncommon wildlife species that is observed and verified in Wisconsin.

Other species are a bit more difficult to verify or confirm. Cougars, or mountain lions, are an example of animals that have been reported here, but clear evidence was pretty scarce until recent years. When we can find evidence, it helps us confirm the presence of these animals. Photographs are helpful, as are clearly defined tracks or even droppings. If we have the opportunity to collect DNA samples, we can even determine their source population. Today we have clear evidence that cougars exist in Wisconsin but maybe not an established population. We haven’t seen evidence of them reproducing or raising offspring, and they have not been reported in our winter track surveys. What we are seeing are likely animals coming in from other locations (like South Dakota) looking for new territory.

Finally, there are species that are nearly impossible to confirm. Probably the best example in this category, in my area anyway, is the North American Black Panther. This animal has been given a name, but has never officially been catalogued. This means that, although large black cats have been reported in North America for hundreds of years, we don’t have evidence of living, reproducing populations. Yet this animal is reported often enough to have been given a name. When you see black panthers on TV shows or in movies, they are actually usually leopards that have a dark phase, what we call melanistic. Because of their beauty, these animals are bred to encourage this trait for zoos, pets, and entertainment venues. Leopards are actually from Africa, so it would be very difficult for them to get to Wisconsin and survive here. There is a slim possibility that we have cougars here that occasionally have melanistic offspring, but that would be extremely rare, probably rarer than seeing an albino cougar. Since we have so few regular cougars, it is extremely unlikely that we have a reproducing population of color variants.

I never tell someone what they did or didn’t see. If you saw a black panther, and I wasn’t there with you, I have to rely on your description. When I get photos sent to me that are reported as black panthers, they usually end up being yearling black bears, large fisher, black labs or Plott hounds. No one has ever been able to get a clear photo of these creatures, and we haven’t seen tracks, droppings, or hairs we can collect or sample. Until that happens, or until one is shot by a hunter or killed by a vehicle, proving their existence would be virtually impossible. Modern game camera technology may be key to unlocking the mystery of just which wildlife species wander our woods. Remember, you can report any animal observation you would like online; go to https://dnr.wi.gov and type “large mammal observation form” into the search box.

Jeremy Holtz is a Wisconsin native. After starting college with plans of teaching high school music, he got married and left school to re-evaluate his long-term career goals. It took a couple of years, but he returned to college to study natural resource conservation. He ultimately earned his Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University in 1998. He worked in Colorado, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Minnesota before returning to Wisconsin as a Wildlife Biologist in Florence in 2006. After five years in Florence, he transferred to Rhinelander, where he has lived with his wife Carol, and their three sons Jay, Brett, and Trey since fall 2011.
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