Jan. 14—BAUDETTE, Minn. — Living near Beltrami Island State Forest a few miles southwest of Baudette in Lake of the Woods County, Dennis Topp sees a variety of critters on the trail cameras he sets on his property.
From gray wolves to deer, bobcats, pine martens and even a lynx he saw both on camera and in person a few winters back, Topp figured he'd seen pretty much every kind of wildlife there is to see in this part of northern Minnesota.
That changed in late December, when Topp checked a trail camera a mere quarter-mile from his house and came across two images of what could only be a cougar.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has verified the image as a cougar sighting, with the caveat that it wasn't site verified because snow had long since covered the tracks. The time stamp on the two cat photos is 6:59 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14, and Topp says he didn't check the trail camera until about a week later.
Usually, Topp says he would hike or ski by the trail camera daily, but he was dog-sitting for a friend over the holidays and didn't want to take the pet on the trail in case it ran off and got lost.
"When I finally did go and pull the card out of the camera, I saw wolf tracks, which is not unusual here," said Topp, a retired fisheries biologist for the DNR in Baudette. "I have a lot of wolves around here."
His reaction upon seeing the mountain lion photo: "Holy crap!"
Initially, Topp says, he wondered if seeing was actually believing or if perhaps a domestic cat had wandered too close to the trail camera, giving the illusion of a big cat. Then, a wolf showed up on the same trail camera a couple of days later and put the sighting into clearer focus.
"Then you get a perspective on height and things like that," Topp said. "It looked like the cat was actually taller than the wolf that came by. They weren't in the exact same position, but I knew it was a bigger cat."
Topp emailed the photos to Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minnesota. Mehmel, in turn, forwarded the photos to John Erb, wildlife research scientist for the DNR's Forest Wildlife Populations and Research Group in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
Erb, who handles all reported cougar sightings in Minnesota, agreed the cat was indeed a cougar, a name used synonymously with mountain lion, the more common usage in the Dakotas.
"Right now, I'd maybe call it a 'tier 2' verification," Erb said. "It's a cougar, (there's) no reason to doubt its legitimacy, but (it was) not verified by current DNR staff."
Cougar sightings have become more common in Minnesota than they were 20 years ago "for sure," Erb says, but the DNR maintains the state does not have a breeding population of the big cats, based on scent-post and winter tracking surveys used to sample furbearer species.
Instead, most sightings in Minnesota result from cougars wandering in from the western Dakotas, the DNR says.
Mountain lions are protected in Minnesota and can't be hunted.
The growing prevalence of trail cameras on the landscape no doubt plays a role in the increase of reported sightings, Erb says; still, reports vary from year to year.
The DNR verified 52 cougar sightings from 2004 through 2020,
according to an interactive map on the agency website,
including a record 15 sightings in 2020.
"We really seemed to see an uptick around 2009 or so," Erb said, including a cat killed by a vehicle that year on the outskirts of Bemidji. "But it fluctuates. I don't believe we had any in 2014 or 2015. So, it's not a steady climb or anything, but it's all based on opportunistic public detections and then having them reported to us.
"It's not a systematic survey."
Jay Huseby, wildlife director for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa on the Red Lake Reservation, says the tribal Department of Natural Resources has yet to record a cougar on the trail cameras it sets on reservation lands as part of ongoing gray wolf research.
"We bait wolves for winter live-snaring," Huseby said. "I always thought we would get (a cougar) on camera at one of these sites, but not yet. We do get some pretty reliable sightings every year on or around the reservation."
Last fall, for example, a tribal DNR employee watched a cougar walk across his property one evening near Leonard, Minnesota, in Clearwater County, Huseby said.
At one time, Erb says, he required "obvious evidence" and a site visit by a DNR staff member before he would verify a cougar sighting. The site visit was implemented to alleviate the potential for hoaxes and photos being digitally manipulated or falsely claiming to be from Minnesota or a specific piece of property in the state. The internet is fertile ground for such hoaxes.
The site visit requirement has been relaxed the past couple of years because of more staffing and time constraints, Erb says. Instead, he added a "Site Verified — Y or N" column to his database.
"And in all honesty, we've had enough sightings now over the past 15 years that it is not as much of a novelty as it once was, so I worry less about absolute rigor in verification," Erb said. "If somebody can visit, great; if not, I'll still add to my file with that caveat."
Regardless of the requirements, verifying a cougar sighting is an inexact science. In late November, for example, two sightings reported a few days and a few miles apart near Cass Lake, Minnesota, likely were the same cat. Ditto for two sightings in late December near Owatonna, Minnesota, also a few miles and a few days apart.
Erb says he counted the sightings near Cass Lake as one cat. A similar situation likely explains the unprecedented number of sightings in 2020, when a single cougar near Grand Rapids likely accounted for as many as six of the 15 sightings, Erb says.
Another cat eventually killed by a vehicle in the Twin Cities metro area likely accounted for three more of the sightings the DNR verified in 2020, he says.
"We are quite certain that in many cases we get repeat detections of the same cat, even if we can't prove it," Erb said.
"We have had a couple over the years that seem to stay put for a couple or a few months in one area, but they always seem to disappear," he added.
Or, perhaps, die.
Another caveat: The DNR often has to assume the cougar spotted in a particular sighting is a wild cat, and not a domestic cougar that either escaped or was released from captivity, Erb says.
"In most cases, we simply don't know," he said.
DNA sampling can help shed light on some of the mystery, and "all evidence" of the samples the DNR has collected to date points to the genetic origin of cougars wandering through Minnesota as being from the Black Hills of South Dakota or the
Badlands of western North Dakota,
No doubt, the cats can move a long distance in a relatively short amount of time. In one extreme case, a cougar the DNR genetically sampled near the Twin Cities by collecting a scat sample was eventually hit by a car in the state of Connecticut, Erb says.
"Matching samples were later also confirmed, I believe, in Wisconsin and then maybe New York," Erb said. "But eventually, (the cougar) was hit in Connecticut, and the DNA sample matched."
With the recent verified sighting near Baudette, Erb says 2021 likely resulted in four cats "tops, maybe less" in Minnesota, given the multiple sightings near Cass Lake and Owatonna.
A September sighting in Grant County near Elbow Lake, Minnesota, and an early November sighting in Carver County near Watertown, Minnesota, both were site-verified, Erb says.
"There's no way to know how many different cats this all represents," he said.
As for the cat that showed up in December on Topp's trail camera near Baudette, it's more than likely miles away by now.
That's part of the mystery — and the allure — of these big cat sightings when they occur.
"I didn't ever expect to see that — I certainly haven't since then," Topp said. "There's nothing spectacular going on now except for a few deer and wolves and pine marten.
"The usual stuff."
Here's a look at some notable mountain lion sightings in northwest Minnesota and the Red River Valley in the past two decades:
* Late 2004 and early 2005: A radio-collared male that wandered east from South Dakota eventually passed a few miles west of Grand Forks before crossing the Red River into Minnesota. The cat spent January through mid-March 2005 in a remote part of Roseau River Wildlife Management Area before disappearing off the radar, possibly into Canada.
* 2009: A 114-pound male cougar was killed by a vehicle near Bemidji in September. DNA sampling identified the cat as originating in western North Dakota.
* 2013: Dave Larson of Osakis, Minnesota, was hunting coyotes with hounds in January when the dogs picked up the scent of a mountain lion. They eventually treed the cat, and Larson was able to take several photos and a video clip with his cellphone. In September, the DNR verified a trail camera image of a cougar along the Red River in Norman County.
* 2019: The DNR in December verified a trail camera image in central Beltrami County as a cougar.
* 2020: The Minnesota DNR verified as cougars a January trail camera image near Bemidji and a February 2020 trail camera photograph in Polk County near East Grand Forks.
A complete listing of DNR-verified mountain lion sightings is available on the
. — Brad Dokken