Dave Larson was hunting coyotes with his two hounds Jan. 23 south of Osakis, Minn., when the dogs picked up the tracks of a mountain lion.
There'd been reports of a cat in the area since November, and a buddy of Larson's, who also hunts with hounds, had treed the lion earlier in January.
The tracks Larson encountered late that cold January morning appeared to be at least 12 hours old, but his two hounds only went about a quarter-mile before they jumped the cat bedded down in some grass and treed it 50 yards later.
Mountain lions are protected in Minnesota and can't be hunted, but Larson, a longtime hound hunter, used his smartphone to take several photos and a video clip of the cat in the tree.
"He was only about 20 feet from me where I was standing taking the video," Larson, of Osakis, said. "He wasn't concerned about me at all."
Larson's one regret, he says, is that he missed getting video of what happened next, when the cat "bailed out of that tree" and back up a larger tree nearby with the hounds in pursuit. The cat was still in the tree when Larson called off the dogs and turned his hunting attentions to a new area.
"It was thrilling," he said.
Larson's encounter is the most recent in a handful of documented mountain lion sightings that occur in Minnesota each year. Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the Department of Natural Resources, said Minnesota doesn't have a breeding population of mountain lions, and as a result, doesn't study cats in the state.
That only adds to the mystery when sightings occur. In every case, the lions that have been confirmed -- and most of them aren't -- are young males passing through in search of new territory and a mate.
Typically, they're gone within days, which makes the sighting near Osakis unusual.
"He'd be pretty easy to find," Larson said. "I'm pretty confident if he's still there, I could tree that thing in a couple of hours."
The assumption is the cat Larson encountered is the same lion that showed up on a nearby trail camera two months earlier. Steve Loch, an independent biologist from Babbitt, Minn., who closely tracks mountain lion reports across the country, said it's rare for a cat in Minnesota to stay in one place for more than a few days.
The only other example, Loch said, was a radio-collared male cat that wandered east from South Dakota late in 2004. That cat eventually passed a few miles west of Grand Forks before crossing the Red River and ending up in a remote part of Roseau River Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota. It stayed there from January through mid-March before disappearing off the radar, possibly into Canada.
Loch says deep snow and a nearby deer herd were factors in that cat's decision not to move. The mountain lion near Osakis, by comparison, didn't have to contend with snow until late January.
"We just haven't had that kind of experience," Loch said. "This is the most interesting cat that I've worked with or thought about or considered."
Lion populations in South Dakota and western North Dakota have been increasing since the mid- to late-1990s, and the cats wandering through Minnesota are thought to be transient males moving east from the Black Hills or the Badlands. A young male mountain lion killed by a car in September 2009 near Bemidji likely came from western North Dakota, based on genetic tests that matched the DNA of Badlands cats.
Jonathan Jenks, a professor and research biologist at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D., began studying mountain lions in the Black Hills in the late 1990s. At that time, Jenks said, officials from the state's Department of Game, Fish and Parks estimated the population of the elusive animals at 15 to 20 cats.
More recently, estimates have put South Dakota's population as high as 250, Jenks said, and researchers are tracking more than 40 cats with collars in the Black Hills.
"When we started on this research project with my first student back in the late '90s, we were told we wouldn't be able to radio-collar any of them because there weren't enough lions in the Black Hills," Jenks said.
The student got 12 cats "on the air" that first year, Jenks said, and researchers have radio-collared more than 300 since. Trained hounds tree the cats for researchers to capture and collar.
"The information that's available indicates that lions most likely repopulated the Black Hills from the Snowy or Laramie ranges in Wyoming," Jenks said. "It's been said we know more about the Black Hills lion population than just about any other lion population in North America."
The ability to track the radio-collared lions has confirmed the ability of the cats, especially young males, to travel long distances. A male cat collared about the same time as the lion that wintered in Roseau River WMA was killed by a train in Oklahoma, Jenks said, a straight-line distance of about 665 miles.
Another South Dakota cat with a GPS collar was killed in Saskatoon, Sask., Jenks said. And DNA samples from a lion killed in 2011 in Connecticut showed the cat had originated from the Black Hills, some 1,800 miles away. The same cat had been photographed the previous year on a trail camera in Wisconsin.
Without research projects, encounters with people and trail camera sightings are about the only ways to confirm lion encounters in Minnesota. Loch said Minnesota has had about 10 confirmed trail camera records of mountain lions since 2007, including at least two each fall since 2010.
But without radio-collar data, no one knows where those cats go.
"A cat on the move is virtually impossible to keep up with," said Loch, who can rattle off reports of mountain lion sightings the way most people can remember what they had for dinner the previous day. "No matter what anyone says, we just don't know enough about where these things are moving from."
That's why Loch says he'd like to collect a DNA sample from the cat recently treed near Osakis.
"I don't know where it came from; I don't know what gender it is," Loch said. "I want to know the answer to this. I'm real curious."
South Dakota offered its first hunting season on mountain lions in 2005. Jenks said the quota that first year was 15. By last year, the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks had increased the quota to 70. This year, the quota is 100 for the season that's still in progress.
Hunters have hit the quota every year until this year, Jenks said, and the harvest as of last week was up to 41.
Like South Dakota, North Dakota offered its first mountain lion season in 2005. According to Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, the quota that first year was five, and this year's quota of 21 is a 50 percent increase from last year.
The state doesn't have a population estimate or specific population goal, Kreil said.
"When we launched our first season, there were people who thought we were irresponsible because we couldn't tell how many were out there," he said. "We were comfortable if we killed five, we wouldn't decimate the population."
DNA samples from the cats taken by hunting have shown most of North Dakota's "home-grown" lions have South Dakota origins, Kreil said.
A research project Jenks is overseeing in the Badlands should help shed more light on North Dakota's lion population. The project began last winter, and eight Badlands cats have radio-collars, Kreil said; plans are in the works to collar more as the opportunity arises.
"Our goal is to manage the mountain lion population at a level that doesn't have a significant negative impact on our big game populations, but at the same time, provide that special trophy hunting opportunity that people get when they harvest a mountain lion," Kreil said.
Given the eastward expansion that's occurred, no one can say whether mountain lions will establish a resident population in Minnesota.
"There are some places I'm absolutely convinced they couldn't make it," Loch said. "We've got road density and people density. ...
"But there might be some places that they could."
One thing's for certain, few wild creatures in this part of the world generate more interest.
"They're an incredible species," Jenks said. "And for the most part, they just want to get away from people."