Spooner, Wis. – When he first saw the large tracks in the snow,
veteran hunter Steve Thompson knew he was onto an animal that
biologists have claimed for generations did not exist in the state,
despite many reported sightings over the years.
“I’ve hunted out West a lot,” said Thompson, who uses hounds. “I
know a cougar track.”
And March 3, for the first time, a cougar was confirmed with
photographic evidence in Wisconsin when Thompson and fellow hunter
Mark Brown treed the male cat just west of Spooner.
“There were lots of people who saw it, lots of photos taken,”
Thompson said. “Finally, proof! They can’t deny it now. There are
cougars in Wisconsin. The myth is ended.”
Even the Wisconsin DNR, skeptical of the existence of cougars
for years, agreed.
“We have a cougar running around,” said Jim Bishop, DNR public
affairs officer in Spooner. “This is the first verifiable one. We
have had lots of sightings in the past, but this is the first one
that has panned out. With this one, we’re sure.”
Wisconsin elk biologist Matt McKay was called in from Clam Lake
to photograph the animal. Many other witnesses also snapped photos
and collected video.
DNR_confirms it’s a lion
On March 4, conservation warden Dave Zebro was contacted by
Thompson, who told him about the adult male lion treed the previous
day. With the assistance of other dog hunters, a team of DNR
biologists again treed the animal on March 4. An attempt to capture
the animal failed.
Biologists wanted to capture the lion, take a blood sample, and
place a radio collar on its neck. The cat would then be released
“With a blood sample we can do a DNA test to determine … the
origin of the animal,” said Ken Jonas, DNR wildlife biologist.
“Using a radio collar we can determine where this cat is
Jonas said the DNR tried to use the minimum amount of
tranquilizer necessary to capture the cat.
“We would not want to see the animal fall from a tree or be
harmed because of our actions. The lion’s health was a primary
concern,” he said.
Mountain lions are listed as protected animals in Wisconsin. The
public is encouraged to contact the DNR office in Spooner (715)
635-2101 if they see the animal.
The last known wild mountain lion, also known as cougars,
catamounts, or pumas, in Wisconsin disappeared during the early
part of the 20th century. Although reports of cougars have been
received around the state during the ensuing years, none have been
documented as wild cats since the early 1900s. The first confirmed
sighting of a mountain lion in the state was last January when one
was spotted near Milton. In January and March last year, an
apparent wild cougar roamed Rock and Walworth counties, and on
April 14, 2008, it was killed in Chicago. The 122-pound 2-year-old
male most closely matched genetically to cougars from South
Mountain lions have been documented in Minnesota, Iowa,
Missouri, and Illinois.
The largest nearby population is in South Dakota.
Trailing the cat
The story of the Spooner cougar began on Tuesday, March 3, early
in the morning when Thompson got a phone call from an old
“Eddie Berkes called me about 8 a.m.,” said Thompson, who
recently returned from a Montana mountain lion hunt. “He said,
‘I’ve got a mountain lion track going through my yard.’ That was at
Spring Lake, just off of County K.”
Thompson got together his crew of Mark Brown, Ross Tollander,
and Steve Curtis of Webster, Kevin Radman, of Danbury, and Asa
Thompson, of Spooner, along with their dogs, usually used for
“We tracked the lion across by the Billy Marx (property) on
County E. It just kept going south. We tracked it across Hwy. 70 by
Dennis Kelly’s house. It started going a little bit west and south
and crossed County O, then crossed County B,” Thompson said.
The men were tracking the lion without their dogs, not wanting
to run the animal too much.
“We never put the dogs on him,” Thompson said. “We just kept
cutting his track. We finally put dogs on by Bashaw Store Road. We
treed the lion about half a mile east of Hwy. H at about 4
It had been a long chase, in the neighborhood of eight
“We called the DNR, (conservation officer) Paul Martin … when we
treed the lion,” Thompson said. “There was good light, but they
never showed up. Wednesday morning we got no response. I called
Dave Zebro in Spooner and they wanted to know if we took pictures.
Then I got a call from a guy in Woodruff who wanted us to re-tree
That call, Bishop said, came from wolf tracker Ron Schultz.
“We wanted to radio collar it and let it go,” Bishop said.
“(Ron) has darted hundreds of wolves, but we failed. He got a dart
in it, but it got away.”
The hunters, however, believe the dart missed.
“It was a failure,” said witness Thompson. “They hit a branch.
You could see the fluid dripping down. The guy started climbing the
tree, the lion spun around, growled, and jumped out.”
The hunters said they treed the cougar a third time, but when
the DNR did not come in, Thompson called it quits.
“I pulled the dogs off,” he said. “I was afraid the lion had
been run too much. They had an excellent opportunity, but it didn’t
Thompson’s crew refused to tree the lion again. They said they’d
gained respect for the cat and would do nothing more that might
cause it harm.
“But on Thursday (the DNR) got another hound group,” said
Thompson, who took his crew back to observe. “We were there. They
shot it again and used a low dose. They hit it this time. The lion
jumped. They walked the track for about a mile, and then those guys
pulled their dogs off. They said it was enough. That was over near
Webster, by the Crow Bar. They were afraid they’d stress it out,
Thompson said he’ll not run the cougar anymore for that reason,
but fears the biologists will continue.
“We told them to leave it alone,” Thompson said. “The wardens
were OK, but the biologists said they wouldn’t quit until they got
a collar on it. We’re afraid what’s going to happen is every bear
hunter and guy with hounds is going to chase it. Sure, it would be
interesting to get a collar on it, but the game warden even told
them it was enough and left. If they keep running it, they will run
“That cat had earned our respect,” Brown said. “We let him go.
We won’t use our dogs on him again.”
Brown said the group called their friends and told them that if
the DNR called and asked them to help run that cat, ” … tell them
to go to hell.”
Bishop confirmed on March 6 that efforts to tranquilize and
collar the cougar had been called off for the safety of the big
“There is no activity (Friday) he said. “Right now the health of
the animal is what is important. I was looking at a map with Ken
Jonas. It traveled 15 miles one day and almost 15 the next. It
might stay around. If it doesn’t find what it wants here – a mate,
enough food – it may go back to where it came from, South Dakota,
Michigan, who knows.”
Bishop thinks the cat probably dispersed from South Dakota or
another nearby area in search of territory.
Thompson, who hunts extensively in Wisconsin, said that he has
never before seen a cougar track here.
It is being stressed that in Wisconsin, the mountain lion is a
protected species. It is illegal to harm or capture one. The best
thing to do is to just back off, leave it alone and not harass it,
said biologists, hunters, and a host of citizens rooting for the
The Spooner cougar, by all accounts, looked well-fed and
extremely healthy, leading biologists to believe it is indeed a
wild cat feeding on deer, beavers, squirrels, and other wild game.
Animals raised in captivity would not be skilled hunters and would
not be that kind of shape, officials said.