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DNR suspects hunter saw bobcats, not mountain lions

A cardboard cutout of a typical-size cougar, or mountain lion, left, is compared with a photograph of an apparent bobcat in the same tree from the same vantage point in northern Minnesota. The photo on the right was initially believed to be of a cougar, but when a Minnesota wildlife official visited the site with the cardboard cutout site Monday, he concluded the animal was too small. Left photo courtesy of Dan Stark, Minnesota DNR; right photo courtesy of Jordan Bowen

NASHWAUK, Minn.—Turns out they might have been "just" bobcats.

What were at first believed to be two cougars, or mountain lions, fighting after one tried to attack a deer last week was most likely a common case of mistaken identity, state wildlife officials have concluded.

Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, visited on Monday, Nov. 14, the potential cougar-fight site near the Iron Range town of Nashwauk. He toted along a cardboard cutout of a typical mountain lion.

"My point was not to challenge anybody," Stark said.

At first glance at a photograph of one of the cats in a tree, he had been willing to accept the incident as a possible rare sighting of a pair of cougars — one worth spending some time to check out. It looked like a cougar, but it also looked like a bobcat. Maybe there was a paw print, or scat of something else of scientific value.

"My point is always just to gather information," Stark said. "My initial thought was: Can we get some more information. I didn't really think about the cardboard cougar until I was just about on the road. It's not something I've ever used before."

Stark perched it in a tree close to where one of the big cats was photographed by a 16-year-old deer hunter. Stark then climbed into the stand where the hunter had taken the pictures. The size looked all wrong. The cat in the pictures was much smaller than a mountain lion would have been.

"To me it was pretty convincing to get the size difference," he said.

He took some new pictures. Juxtaposing the images make a pretty compelling case.

The probabilities are probably with bobcats.

Any large cat we see in Minnesota is probably a bobcat. Because there are thousands of bobcats in the state — the DNR estimated 6,200 this fall. There are few, if any, cougars at any given moment — although there's no question they do at least pass through Minnesota.

A host of wildlife experts, from state agencies in Missouri and Nebraska to directors at the Cougar Network, looked at the pictures and think — they're not certain but they think — that the big, tawny cat in the tree looks like a bobcat. They point to white markings on the legs, possible tufts of fur on the face, and — most notably — no evidence of that long tail that can stretch up to 3 feet.

Cougar or bobcat?

Bobcats rarely exceed 40 pounds; cougars can top 175. That's about the difference between my 6-year-old boy and me. So you might think we could tell the two apart.

But they trick us all the time.

"I've been fooled," said Michelle LaRue, a research associate at the University of Minnesota who has studied mountain lions since 2005. "Bobcats are surprisingly big. They look much bigger than you'd think. Cougars are just that much bigger. They're really big. It's just hard to get the right mental picture to compare these two animals."

As executive director of the Cougar Network, a nonprofit that tracks confirmed cougar sightings outside their predominant current range in the western U.S., LaRue receives daily reports and photographs of possible cougar sightings. "Most are bobcats. Some are house cats. It's not anyone's fault."

Being a scientist, LaRue has actually broken down how well people can judge photos that generally look like cougars, via her weekly #CougarOrNot social media quiz. "When you see a mountain lion, you know it," LaRue said. "But when you're not shown a mountain lion, you're much more likely to get it wrong. It's false positives."

LaRue emphasizes she doesn't know what animal was photographed. She wasn't there, and she knows the risk of coming off like a know-it-all: "I am only basing it off the blurry picture I've seen. I'm certainly not going to tell anybody what or what they have not seen."

Having said that, to her, the picture looks like a bobcat, she said.

Regardless, it doesn't appear likely to go down as one of the Cougar Network's more-than 800 "confirmed sightings" of mountain lions outside their home range since 1990. Or the Minnesota DNR's list, which includes 15 confirmed sightings since 2007.

Both agencies require irrefutable evidence, which usually raises the bar to some DNA, a paw print, a dead cougar or excellent photographs.

A rare occurrence

No one should feel bad.

We mistake bobcats for cougars all the time. We see wolves instead of coyotes, muskies instead of pike, and a dog can seem like just about anything. The one time I saw a cougar in the wild, it was pouncing on a snowshoe hare miles from any road in the snow-covered woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula — until the dog's owner showed up, grabbed whatever throw toy prompted the pooch to pounce, and shook my tricked brain back to reality.

Yet I've been involved in this kind of thing before; I get lots of reported sightings, including several just this week. When wildlife officials or other experts — and they are more expert than the rest of us — conclude otherwise, there's a tendency for folks to stick to what they saw with their own eyes — and how they saw it.

Then there's this reality: The DNR has credibility problem. Rightly or wrongly, some are skeptical of the DNR, its methods and motives.

So it didn't surprise me when the Bowen family — it's their deer stand where all this happened — told me Tuesday that they don't buy Stark's analysis. Or appreciate it much.

"If we were to place the cutout up about 8 feet higher in the tree and take the picture from the same distance, I believe the cutout would appear smaller than the actual animal," Kara Bowen, mother of Jordan, the hunter, told me in an email.

"To be honest, it is a bit of an insult to us personally for someone to do such a poor job of objectively analyzing this situation, and we believe there is potentially as much of a story of how this is may be trying to be covered up for some reason," the email read, in part. "We believe it is important for the public to know the truth, and were willing to share Jordan's experience about these beautiful creatures that are living among us, because we feel it was a unique and rare occurrence."

That it was.

I wasn't there, but I know this: Jordan Bowen saw a big wildcat try to attack a deer.

The deer escaped, and the cat bounded up a tree. Way up, especially for such a big cat. Then it started snarling and howling and went down the tree. Then it got into a brief fight with another big cat.

And Jordan, a 16-year-old from Rush City, got to see it all from his deer stand.

A kid could do worse than that on a day in the woods.

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