NASHWAUK, Minn. - Two likely cougars, or mountain lions, have been spotted in northern Minnesota - fighting.
The exceedingly rare event - wildlife officials aren't aware of two cougars being spotted together in Minnesota before - raises the possibility that one could have been a female.
Which raises the possibility - albeit a remote one - that we might be on the verge of a breeding population that could establish itself permanently. That hasn't happened since European settlement.
One cougar chased a deer and then got into a brief altercation with a second cougar while a startled 16-year-old deer hunter watched and tried to record images and sounds on Monday near Nashwauk in Itasca County.
State wildlife officials are being cautious about drawing any conclusion from the photographs, video and account. After seeing photos of the animal, Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the sighting appears to be legitimate.
"Without more information, I really don't know what we can say," Stark said. "It's kind of remarkable that they saw two in one place. Whether the encounter was a territorial interaction or something else, it's hard to know."
Wild cougars are known to occasionally appear in Minnesota. Biologists believe that the animals generally fall into two categories: 1) males that have wandered from the nearest known breeding population in the western Dakotas, or 2) captive animals that have found their freedom somehow. What hasn't been seen, dead or alive, is either wild females or cubs. (Two females captured or killed since 2000 are suspected to have been freed or escaped captives.)
Nonetheless, the suspicion persists among some in rural northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula of small permanent populations that feed on whitetail deer and stay mostly hidden.
'It was staring at me'
Jordan Bowen was preparing to fire on a deer emerging from tall grasses and brush on Monday, when a cougar lunged at the deer. The deer dodged the assault with a bolt and escaped around a tree, he said. It was soon out of sight.
"Then, in about two or three seconds, the cougar just jumped up into this big tree about 40 yards away," said Bowen, who was up in a deer stand himself, affording him an excellent view. "It was about 40 feet up almost immediately. I couldn't believe it."
The cat perched in the tree and began snarling. It was so loud that Bowen's brother and sister, some 750 yards and 1,000 yards away across a swamp, heard it, said Dan Bowen, their father.
The family owns land in the area and has hunted there for years. No one has ever seen a cougar before, Bowen said.
Jordan Bowen said he wasn't sure what to do at first. He trained his rifle on the animal to get a better look through the magnifying scope.
"It was staring right at me. Seemed like 10 minutes. I kind of wanted to shoot it."
Shoot it because you were scared or because you wanted to shoot a mountain lion?
"Both I guess," he said. "It was really cool, but I was also a little worried. I mean, I saw it jump way up into this tree. If it wanted to get me in the stand, it could have done it so quickly."
He didn't shoot, which was wise, since shooting a cougar is illegal in Minnesota unless your life is in immediate danger, and it's unlikely law enforcement would have bought a self-defense argument for taking a 40-yard shot at a stationary animal in a tree.
Feeling more secure after a few minutes, Bowen got out his smartphone and snapped a few pictures. "I wanted to start taking video but the memory was full," he said. "So I'm sitting there trying to delete things and then the cougar goes down a tree and this other one comes out. They started fighting, chasing each other around."
One of the animals, probably the second, ran off, and the first continued snarling. The sounds can be heard amid wind gusts in a brief video Bowen took. In it, the cougar is out of view, behind some brush.
A female mountain lion in heat will vocalize in a snarling manner, and while they can breed year-round, December often signals the start of a season when mating most likely occurs. However, when Bowen listened to a recording of general cougar snarling alongside a female in heat, he said he was pretty sure the vocalization was not that of a female in heat.
Male mountain lions can wander off, or "disperse," vast distances - more than 1,000 miles.
In 2011, scientists were astonished to confirm that a mountain lion killed 70 miles from New York City had passed through the Twin Cities the year before. DNA tests suggested the big cat was likely born in South Dakota's Black Hills.
Male cougars have large territories, so it's not uncommon for one to find itself essentially on walkabout in search of its own turf and a mate.
But females, whose territories are one-tenth the size of males', rarely stray far from where they were born, Stark said.
So in order for females to reach Minnesota's north woods - good habitat for them - they would have to first populate the open grasslands, ranches and farms of North and South Dakota, scientists believe. That wouldn't go unnoticed. South Dakota's ranchers have kept pressure on state authorities to allow enough hunting to keep the population generally confined to federal-owned lands in the Black Hills.
Stark said he's hoping the Bowen family and he can arrange a way for a biologist to visit the site to hunt for scat or hair. Such evidence could yield DNA, which could determine the gender of the animal.
Stark acknowledged that the lack of evidence of a breeding population isn't proof that no such population exists - or could some day.
"I would never say never," Stark said. "It's always a possibility."
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