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Cougar sightings are increasing in Hubbard County region

Steve Greene's trail cam caught this photo of a bobcat near Boulder and Round lakes in Hubbard County. Cougar, bobcat and lynx sightings have increased lately. (Submitted photo)

As a half million hunters fan out over the state's wooded areas, news of cougar sightings are growing in the region.

Are four-legged predators getting a jump on the deer season?

"A lot of those folks think they've seen one or a relative has seen one," said Rob Rabasco, assistant area wildlife manager for the DNR. "Those reports have a commonalty to them. They have no prints, no pictures and it often sounds like it was a fleeting glimpse.

"Oh, but the tale is really long,'" he said witnesses relay.

"But if you line it up with what's going on right now maybe it's not that unusual because firearms deer season starts Saturday and we already are bumping into folks that go up to deer camp early," Rabasco said. "I think there's more people out and that can increase the chances that somebody thinks they see something.

"And that's when you're gonna see an uptick in reports of sightings. But nobody's called us."

Lori Zubke of Laporte, who actually lives near Tower Hill north of Walker, said reports of a cougar in her area surfaced a month ago.

"They were at our gravel pit," she said. "Somebody had dropped a deer, someone had poached a deer and then dumped it there by the side of the road.

"The cougar was eating on it and one of the dump truck drivers saw it," she said.

"And then the neighbors at the top of the hill were sitting around a campfire and one of the fellows walked over to his camper when he heard a ruckus," she recalled hearing. "He went and got his flashlight and here was a cougar killing a deer, taking it down."

Zubke's son Brandon actually saw the big cat.

Kim Waldorf, who has a cabin near the new state park at La Salle Lake, said cougars are often spotted in that region, which is pristine and rugged forestland.

He didn't seem to get excited about it.

"Oh, yeah," he said in answer to a question about mountain lions.

Just this week there were three sightings near Duluth.

None were confirmed by the DNR, which suspected at least one cat might have been a bobcat.

That was Steve Greene's actual experience as his trail cam recorded a bobcat a few days ago.

"Got this picture a few days ago," he e-mailed with the bobcat shot. "I have 20 acres over by Boulder and Round Lakes in Nevis a few weeks ago we lost a baby loon as well as one of the adult loons guessing this or one of it's siblings was probably responsible for it.

"I sleep like a rock but both my wife and a neighbor heard the commotion in the middle of the night and the next day both birds were gone. We now have a single loon and one baby on Round Lake," he wrote.

Rabasco said as more trail cams are being used by landowners; confirmation of a cougar should come more easily in the future. He calls it a "key point of confirmational data," along with [paw prints, scat or other physical evidence.

And Rabasco doesn't doubt all the rumors, nor does his agency.

"Some of the research I've heard (coming out of the Black Hills) is there are a bunch of males that the older males will push out when they're trying to establish mating dominance," he said.

"And we've seen from some of the vary high profile cases that once pushed out these things can get the wanderlust and keep on going."

A cougar spotted near Champlin in December 2009 was tracked by DNA evidence through Wisconsin and eastward, Rabasco said.

"It made it through Minnesota from whereabouts unknown, into Wisconsin, they tracked the DNA evidence and it ended up dying in Connecticut," Rabasco said.

Cougars are known to cover 50-100 miles in a day's travel looking for suitable habitat.

But he doubts all cougars spotted recently have come from the Dakotas.

"I still feel strongly that there were private individuals keeping cats that just couldn't keep them any longer," he said.

"If confirmation of a breeding population can ever be made, that's fine," Rabasco said. "I think what people also have to take note of is that the DNR has no good reason to deny a breeding population. What do we gain by saying that there isn't one?

"There's nothing to gain from saying that so our skepticism as a department is a natural," he added. "We put a lot of people out in the woods, I would argue more than the weekend warrior types get out, and we have very few if any employee confirmations. So I guess that's why we remain skeptical."

As far as cougars affecting the deer harvest, Rabasco says it's not likely.

"Keep in mind we have a few thousand wolves in the state that take a few thousand deer and we're just fine," he said, adding that the issue has been studied.

"We've still had the top 10 deer harvests in the last, whatever, 15 years. There was a string where we set three consecutive years in a row, or two out of four, he said.

"We've gone to permit areas where people can keep up to five deer so I think we're OK."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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