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For many years, cougars have been but a ghostly rumor in Wisconsin, showing up now and then in mysterious sightings but quickly melting again into the dusk of the forest and the realm of imagination.

Now, however, cougars are back, and state Department of Natural Resources workers must develop a plan for how to deal with a powerful animal that hasn’t lived in Wisconsin since about 1910.

The state Department of Natural Resources has confirmed three wild cougars in Wisconsin over the past two years through sightings and genetic testing, said Adrian Wydeven, a DNR wildlife biologist, and the agency has received many more unconfirmed cougar sighting reports. Though it is unclear whether the cats were resident animals or passing through, state wildlife workers need to know how to deal with them and how to prevent clashes between cougars and people as the animals move into the state.

“They’re making their way here back into the state from the west,” said Eric Anderson, a UW-Stevens Point professor and wildlife researcher. “And although they may not be settling here yet, they soon will be .... Clearly, with the likelihood of more cougar/human interactions in Wisconsin, the time is ripe for an agreed-upon capture protocol and strategy for dealing with their return to Wisconsin.”

Though DNR wildlife biologists have become adept at dealing with wolves that began loping back into the state in the 1970s, cougars are another critter entirely, Wydeven said. He recalled, for example, efforts to tranquilize one cougar in a tree. The tranquilizer wasn’t powerful enough, and the cat disappeared into the woods.

“We were right underneath it,” Wydeven said of standing beneath the treed cougar. “I had to pinch myself.”

Anderson and Wydeven recently traveled to South Dakota, where more than 250 cougars have taken up residence, to learn about the animals. The researchers were able to get first-hand experience darting and radio-collaring the cats, gathering knowledge and skills that will come in handy as they gather data on the cougars in Wisconsin.

Cougars, Wydeven said, are apparently finding the state’s forested northern reaches to their liking. He said cougars prefer deep forests compared to wolves that are more often seen in open woodlands. He said it will be interesting to see how wolves and cougars get along; both rely on deer for food, and some research has indicated that a large wolf population can discourage cougars. Wisconsin is now home to more than 700 wolves.

The cougar has not been a resident in Wisconsin since around 1910 though sightings started happening regularly in the 1940s. Many of those were of released pets or instances in which somebody mistakenly identified other animals, frequently golden retrievers, as cougars.

The first of the recent confirmed cougar sightings happened in 2008, when a shocked trapper came eye-to-eye with a cougar in a barn in the countryside outside Milton. The cat, according to the trapper, leaped to the ground through broken siding from the barn’s second floor and vanished in the woods. The same cougar, identified through blood samples, made its way south to Chicago where it met its end at the end of a policeman’s gun barrel. In March 2009, a cougar was chased up a tree by hounds near Spooner, and in December another cougar was photographed by a trail camera near Eau Claire in Dunn County.

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