A male mountain lion was struck and killed by a motorist Friday night south of Bemidji, likely confirming what most residents have suspected: big cats roam the area.
The 114-pound cougar's remains have been taken to a DNR furbearer specialist in Grand Rapids to determine if the animal is wild or domesticated.
Bemidji conservation officer Mike Hruza, who picked up the animal after it was killed on Carr Lake Road, believes it may be a wild animal.
Hruza said he gets cougar sightings weekly, but most cannot be confirmed.
But lately, more credible sightings have come in, he said.
"During Friday morning we received two different calls from two different parties that said they saw a mountain lion," he said. "Our wildlife personnel went to the area and looked around to see if there was any sign of it.
"Then about ten to eight Friday evening I received another call in the general area where the first two calls came from," he said. "I went down and drove through there and then later in the evening it was hit by a car and killed."
The accident occurred just after 10:30 p.m,. on the Schoolcraft Bridge.
Hruza said he, like every DNR officers, hears the cougar tales and the frenzy predatory animals cause throughout the region.
"You know, I probably get three or four a week as I'm sure they do around Park Rapids," he said. "People are always going, 'Yeah, I saw a mountain lion,' but for the vast majority we've never substantiated it.
"About a week prior to this there was three people that worked for the Beltrami County DNR near Wilton about five miles west of Bemidji here that stated they were together and saw what they thought was a mountain lion and of course, we went out to look and it was pavement where we couldn't see any tracks.
"But they're very credible people so I believe they're here," he added. "I believe we all do and now we've got some positive proof and we'll see if this is truly a wild one."
Residents on Steamboat Bay, the northernmost arm of Big Mantrap Lake in Hubbard County, reported seeing a cougar last weekend. Because the cats can range up to 50 miles in a day, DNR officials say it's possible it was the same animal.
Hruza said DNA tests will show wildlife officials what the cat has been eating, whether it is carrying any parasites that could identify it, the cat's overall health and other characteristics that will allow the agency to pinpoint where it came from. Male cats have been known to wander out of the Black Hills east, he said.
The prevalence of cougars leaving the Black Hills has led North Dakota to launch its fifth annual cougar season, which started earlier this month. The season lasts seven months; hunters pay an $8 licensing fee to harvest a handful of mountain lions in the western part of the state.
For many reasons, Hruza believes the Bemidji cat may be wild, not an escaped domesticated animal.
"We've looked it over," he said. "There was no tattoos, no indication it ever had a collar, no ear tags, it had all its claws. It was a pretty healthy looking male. We don't know how old it was but it was a pretty big cat."
It's still unknown, but doubted that the state has a breeding population of cougars, since confirmed sightings are so rare, he said.
"We're not trying to scare anybody," he said. "If this is a wild one it will be the first substantiated wild one. Of all these reports this is the first one. We've never had any depredation complaint, you know, attacks."