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COUGARS SIGHTED

This photo provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources shows a confirmed cougar sighting in Lincoln County. A DNR spokesman says an absentee landowner shared a photo captured on his trail camera on July 30, 2014, that was discovered during a visit to the site in October. Experts say cougars had virtually disappeared in Wisconsin in 1910. 

I'm always intrigued by reports of cougar sightings in Wisconsin.

The latest came earlier this fall when a Department of Natural Resources trail camera caught a cougar image near Neillsville. The agency said it may be the same animal that was sighted near Marathon City about a month earlier.

It's been close to 25 years since my cougar sighting in central Wisconsin, one that my National Guard colleagues suggested was the result of too much imbibing, only that it occurred at 5:30 in the morning. Plus, I had a witness.

My sergeant and jeep driver, Dennis Connor, and I were headed to the field as the sun was rising, its early rays glistening off the heavy dew as we headed down Highway 21 just east of Sparta, along the Fort McCoy military reservation.

Suddenly, a large cat-like animal bounded across the road just ahead of us. Connor slammed on the brakes and we watched as the creature disappeared into the woods, its long, distinct tail swishing behind it.

"That's a cougar," Connor insisted — and I agreed. We had seen nothing like it except in pictures or the old Western movies. It was clearly much larger than a wildcat or some similar animal that was known to frequent the Wisconsin woods.

Later that day I announced my discovery during the officers' call.

"It was obviously something else," none other than the deputy adjutant general declared. "You were seeing things. There are no cougars in Wisconsin — period."

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And so it was thought for at least another dozen years until a documented sighting of a cougar in Wisconsin was reported, one that traveled along the railroad tracks from the Rock County area all the way to Chicago. The cougar wound up being shot because authorities were concerned that it might wind up attacking people in the Chicago suburbs.

While pioneers reported seeing the big cats, there were no cougar sightings in the Midwest for at least a century. The animals were thought to have moved to the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plain states to escape the encroachment of humans. But now, humans are encroaching on their territory in the West and there's speculation that some are moving back.

Connor and I are sure to this day that we saw what may have been the first cougar to rediscover Wisconsin.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.