Cougar sightings reported, but proof is rare
The friends paddled along an open hillside near the edge of the small lake north of Edgerton, past a Sandhill crane that was by the water. Startled, the bird flew.
That's when they saw it.
Without warning, a huge, tan-colored cat exploded across the hillside. It streaked up the hill and vaulted into the crook of a tree about 120 feet away.
Marsden said the cat was as big as a large dog, with a long tail and a strong, angular body. He and Lovelace watched it for about five minutes.
"We were sort of drifting past, and you could see it moving around in the tree. It was making a bunch of weird, loud cat sounds. It sounded like it didn't like us around," Marsden said.
Marsden tried to photograph the big cat, but it was too far away. He said it eventually jumped from the tree and ran away. They didn't report the encounter.
"The fish were biting good, and we didn't want to get interrupted," Marsden said.
It sounds like a campfire story, but Marsden's claim represents a growing trend.
In recent weeks, the Gazette has had several unconfirmed reports from residents who believe at least one cougar—alias Mountain lion or puma—is roaming the tangled hills, swamps and fields near Edgerton.
Some have heard blood-curdling screeches in the night. Some report missing or injured livestock. Others say they've found suspicious tracks, or claim they've seen big cats flashing through the woods.
Can it be? Are cougars lurking in southern Wisconsin?
Doug Fendry, a biologist and wildlife supervisor with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said the DNR gets about a dozen unconfirmed reports of cougar sightings a week throughout southern Wisconsin.
"They seem to be coming through Wisconsin with more frequency. It's going to continue to happen," he said.
Fendry said the local habitat could support cougars, which gravitate to thick tree growth and hilly areas. The Rock River Valley has both. Cougars also need a steady source of food, and Fendry said the area teems with their favorite dinner: deer.
Regional wildlife experts already know that a cougar population in the Black Hills region of South Dakota is growing and expanding its territory into Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
Officials believe male cougars from the Black Hills are moving through wooded river corridors in Wisconsin, in search of possible mates, Fendry said. They're known to travel up to 800 miles.
Fendry said the DNR hasn't confirmed a female cougar in Wisconsin, and it's unclear whether the cats have set up a breeding population in the state.
"It's too early to tell," he said.
Amid scads of reports, the DNR has confirmed only four cougars statewide since 2008—all males. One was confirmed in Milton in January 2008, when a trapper followed big cat tracks into a barn near Milton and came face to face with an adult male cougar with an injured paw.
The 125-pound cat ran off, but left bloody tracks in the snow, DNR officials said.
In April 2008, the cougar turned up in Chicago, where police shot it. The DNR said blood samples proved it was the Milton cougar, and tests showed the cat was genetically similar to cougars in South Dakota.
Big cat attack?
Rural Edgerton resident Sandy Simerson said in early June, an animal attacked two horses at her farm on West Stone Farm Road, just east of Rock River and four miles south of Edgerton. Something jumped the horses from behind, "scratching" their hindquarters enough to strip away hair, she said.
The horses have healed, but Simerson said a few weeks ago her friend saw an enormous dark tan cat standing by a field along West Stone Farm Road.
Keith Warnke, director of endangered resources and non-game species for the DNR, said cougars usually leave livestock alone, but attacks aren't unheard of.
Fendry said based on Simerson's description of her horses' injuries, it's possible dogs or coyotes, which typically attack from behind, were the culprits.
"A cougar wouldn't waste time. It would go straight for the back of the skull or the throat," he said.
Reports of a possible cougar attack that killed a horse in Juneau County earlier this month sparked concerns over whether cougars could pose risks to the safety of animals and people.
State and federal wildlife officials are investigating the attacks, officials said, and the DNR is forming a plan to handle cougar reports statewide.
Cougars are currently protected in Wisconsin, but the DNR is considering protocol for control and possible euthanizing of problem cougars, Warnke said.
Proof in the mud?
In mid-July, Kathy Rudnitzki noticed she had a few chickens missing from the open-sided livestock shed at her Graf Road farm north of Edgerton. Around that time she said she'd heard loud, catlike noises coming from a hillside at night.
"It was like a hissy roar, a growl and a shriek at the same time," Rudnitzki said.
The noises and the missing chickens came a few months after Rudnitzki's brother, Edgerton resident Doug Graf, reportedly saw a large tawny-colored cat bound past him while he was riding a four-wheeler through woods that border the farm.
Rudnitzki found tracks, too—huge, clawed paw prints—in her vegetable garden. She photographed the prints, using a soda can for scale.
The Gazette asked officials from the DNR to analyze the photographs. Their prognosis: Probably not cougar tracks.
"This (track) definitely looks canid (very large dog) to me," DNR Operations Supervisor Don Bates said in an e-mail.
Bates said unlike dogs, cougars have retractable claws that don't show up in tracks.
"There are definite claws on this photo," Bates said. He noted the prints are large enough that they could have come from a wolf.
Adrian Wydeven, a mammal ecologist for the DNR and the state's leading cougar expert, said the Rudnitzkis were right to get pictures of the prints. He said it also helps to protect and preserve droppings, urine or blood by covering them with a coffee can.
He said people should contact a DNR biologist if they think they've spotted a cougar.
Bates said it's interested observers like the Rudnitzkis who could lead to the next confirmed cougar sighting.
"We take citizen observations seriously and value their input. They are our eyes and ears for some of the most interesting animal experiences," he said.