We Used to Have More Cougars in WI

Dec 10, 2018

Trail cam photo of a cougar captured north of Rosendale, Fond du Lac County, WI, earlier this year.
Credit WI Dept. of Natural Resources

Cougar sightings here in the Northwoods are never met with enthusiasm. There was a time, however, when Wisconsin had a well-documented cougar population.

In this week’s episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist examines the Wisconsin Puma.

When my kids were younger, my wife would read a chapter from a book to them at bedtime to help them settle in and get ready to go to sleep. One of the books she chose was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. While Wilder is commonly thought of as a Minnesota native, she was actually born in Wisconsin, and spent several years of her childhood here. This book details their lives in the forested area east of Pepin, Wisconsin, near the Mississippi River.

One night, my wife came downstairs and asked if Wisconsin ever had panthers. She had just read a passage from the book where a horse was attacked by a panther, and it sounded like quite a story. Those familiar with Wilder’s writings know that she wrote her books later in life, many years after the events had occurred. They were her best recollections of events as they happened, but as with any story told from memory across decades, there is always potential for errors and exaggerations. This story was even from before she was born, one of Grandpa’s stories. Still, the question was intriguing. Would Wisconsin have had panthers in the mid to late 1800s? Would the population have been robust enough for the author’s grandparent to have a horse attacked?

In fact, Wisconsin did have its own documented subspecies of panther, the Wisconsin Puma, or Felis concolor schorgeri. The Wisconsin Puma was among the largest of the documented North American cougar subspecies, attaining 7.5 to 8.5 feet total length from nose to tail tip. According to Hartley Jackson’s Mammals of Wisconsin, the puma was probably not rare in the pioneer days. In fact, I counted over two dozen cited reliable records of cougars in Wisconsin from the 1600s through the early 1900s. By the time Jackson’s book was published in 1961, the Wisconsin Puma was considered extirpated (killed off). The cougar records pointed to these large cats as staying in heavily wooded areas, following large river courses like the Mississippi and its tributaries on the west and the Fox River on the east.

So it is entirely possible that Wilder’s grandfather’s horse was attacked by a cougar. I read the account; it actually fits well with how a cougar would hunt. While wolves would run in on the ground and go for the neck, the cougar would lie in wait either on the ground or in a tree and ambush by pouncing on the animal’s back. Grandpa supposedly tracked the animal down and shot it, but I can’t say with certainty that it turned up as one of the actual Wisconsin cougar records tabulated by researchers through the centuries.

Cougar observations and photos are on the rise in Wisconsin. We have not had a documented reproducing cougar population in Wisconsin since the state began running its annual winter track survey, which is one of the largest of its kind in the country. The animals we now have are not likely to be the Wisconsin Puma subspecies; in fact, they are not even Eastern cougars, which have had no documented observations after 1938 and have subsequently been declared extinct. I would surmise that the animals we are seeing in the Northwoods today are a western subspecies, likely from the black hills, and they are expanding east from the Dakotas through river courses in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The great cutover early in the last century probably reduced forested habitat making expansion impossible for these animals, but sound forest management has enhanced wooded habitat in the Northwoods and across much of the state. Further, we have a far higher deer population now (especially in the last 50 years) than we historically did. To me, with forest and deer management progressing as they are, increased presence of cougars seems like an eventuality. With the advancement of trail cameras, we have 24-hour surveillance occurring in nature; if the population turns from transient to resident, we will definitely be able to document it in real time. When we start getting animals hit by vehicles or shot we can do genetic research and find out where their populations are sourced.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.