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Sarah Smith , Published September 18 2008

Cougar sightings: Urban myth or growing problem?

Numerous sightings of cougars in the Park Rapids area have the DNR wondering if the tales are urban myths - or if one or more big cats are truly on the prowl.

JoAnn Leek had a large cat come through her yard in May. She hasn’t seen one since.

“My neighbor showed me a picture of a mountain lion tail and it looked exactly like one,” she said of the cat. “It had a long, long tail. I couldn’t believe how long his tail was. It looked the same size all the way back. It was pretty amazing.”

Leek’s neighbor, Kent Fritze, was jogging in July when he saw a large cat cross the road near him. Fritze and Leek live near Bogey’s sports bar in a wooded area just south of Highway 34 on the eastern edge of Park Rapids.

“It was south on 169th Street, halfway between Hafner’s (greenhouse) and County Road 6,” Fritze said. “My boys saw one over Labor Day weekend when they were out in the yard playing flashlight tag.”

The kids came in immediately.

“It was a little disconcerting to say the least,” Fritze said. “This was a mountain lion, cougar, not a bobcat,” he insisted.

“We’ve had an occasional call,” said Department of Natural Resources (DNR) area wildlife supervisor Rob Naplin.

“Cougars, mountain lions and pumas are all the same animal,” he explained. ”We do not have resident cougars in Minnesota as far as we know.

“The number of sightings that we’ve been able to document is less than a handful so we’re surprised that we’re getting all these supposed sightings because we haven’t had any documentation as far as being photographed, hit by a car, anything like that.”

Fritze and Leek are certain what they’ve seen was a cougar.

“Seen them? No,” said a third neighbor, Jerry Tomford. “Heard them, yes. It sounds like a woman screaming.”

Tomford said from reports he’s heard there’s a mother and cub running around the neighborhood.

“A female mountain lion does not travel with its young in the spring and this one is half-grown,” he said of the younger lion neighbors have reported seeing.

“We used to have deer all over the place out here and we have none,” Tomford said.

“Usually they devour my hostas,” Leek agreed. “We haven’t had any deer around.”

Other tales are coming in from hunters in the woods, one in particular from the Two Inlets area that allegedly happened Sunday.

Tomford believes the DNR has surreptitiously released the animals to control the deer population. He claims a DNR contractor from the Warroad area told him there have been numerous sightings in that area.

Naplin said because cougars have such a wide territorial range, a cat could be spotted one place on a certain day and 50 miles away the next.

But Naplin angrily dismisses malicious rumors that the cats were released by the DNR.

“That is a total falsity,” he said. “The DNR has not released any cougars anywhere in Minnesota. These rumors are running rampant and we don’t know who’s generating them or where they’re coming from because we haven’t been able to document anything.”

Tomford isn’t so sure. His brother-in-law saw one in a cornfield in New York Mills recently, he said. It troubles him that the ones reported in his neighborhood don’t seem to be afraid of humans, he said.

“Toms will look for new territory,” he said. “But all of a sudden we hear of them all over the place?”

Leek meanwhile keeps a close watch over her Bichon, Bridget, when she takes the dog out at night. But Leek’s still a bit spooked by her encounter.

“When I go out and work in the garden I look around,” she admitted.

Fritze is also exercising caution - while he exercises his legs. On the day of his encounter, he quickly changed directions. “It came across the road and I went, ‘Oop! Not a good thing,’” he said. “Luckily it was a good 20 yards away.”

Naplin said the state doesn’t have a breeding population that he’s aware of. “We may have an occasional disperser and we may have a couple of animals,” he said.

The DNR has investigated livestock problems, but found all to date attributable to bears, Naplin said.

It’s possible that someone might have kept a wild cat as a pet and it either escaped or was let loose, he said.

“There are some captive ones that I know are secure,” he said. “As far as others that are kept by private individuals, we aren’t aware of any or where they may be because there’s no recording required.”

Meanwhile, he says it’s been frustrating to sort the facts from the fiction.

“It’s something we’re not sure what’s going on but it seems like a phenomenon,” he said. The rumors unfairly malign the DNR “that we’re not telling people everything and that’s not the case,” he said.

The DNR is interested in cougar sightings, and Hubbard County residents are urged to report any to Naplin at 732-8452.