Madison Area Herpetological Society

Did I Really See a Big Cat in Wisconsin?

Did I see a Big Cat in Wisconsin?
By Eric Roscoe

 

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on the animal and the context), over the past several years, there have been occasional, periodic news media reports of cougars, or mountain lions (Puma concolor) as well as other exotic big cat species across various areas in Wisconsin that attract widespread attention. While some of these sightings of cougars in the state have been verified and are legitimate (and thus are good news for the reappearance of a species that was formerly extirpated from Wisconsin in the case of cougars), many others have turned out to be either false, cases of mistaken identity of other animals, or unverified and unsubstantiated. Sometimes their tracks or other physical signs are also reported or misidentified as well. So what are we doing writing about large carnivorous mammalian, non herp species and how likely is there for cougars to be seen in Wisconsin, or another escaped exotic big cat for that matter? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions are largely political in that animal rights organizations can be expected to almost always misuse and exploit these sightings and statistics to further promote their abstract idea that a big cat (or other exotic animal) could be loose in Wisconsin due to the state’s absence of state legislation, even when it can be proven that no animal or other concrete proof existed. Furthermore, these recurring news reports of large cats tend to die out quickly once no further sightings or other evidence of the animals in question are reported, thus the need for an article such as this to provide a proper perspective and assessment of these types of reports.

Wisconsin has three species of indigenous felids (cats). These include the aforementioned mountain lion, or cougar, which has been making its comeback in the state in recent years after being considered extirpated, the Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis), and the bobcat (Lynx rufus). Domestic house cats which may be strays or ferals (Felis catus) are also often seen, despite being non-indigenous. Unfortunately, many animals can be easily misidentified or be difficult to identify with complete certainly under poor lighting conditions, when observations are made at a distance or for only very briefly, when there are only grainy or blurry/distorted/out of focus photos or videos of the animal, or when lack of objective size, scale, and perception is given. In this article, several aspects lending to the identification (or misidentification) of other animals which can be initially mistaken for a big cat.

Mountain Lion, Cougar, or Puma (Puma concolor) -Mountain lions, or pumas are a large felid species that are widely distributed over much of North America, through Mexico and Central America, and into South America, making them perhaps the most widely ranging big cat species. They are the largest felid species indigenous to Wisconsin.
-Mountain lions have short coats, which may vary in color from tawny brown to reddish-brown, yellowish, to grayish. The belly, underside, and chin and throat are a lighter colored white or cream.
-Young or immature cougars up to 2 years of age are patterned with darker brown spots and streaks.
-The tail is long and rope-like with a black tip, and measures 28 to 38” in length. The ears are fairly small and rounded, and can be solid black or grayish. There are also some black markings on the muzzle as well.
-Cougars may weigh 116 to 180 lbs. (in males) and 75-110 lbs. (in females). Males also range from 80-95” in body length, while females average 72-80” in body length. Height at the shoulder ranges from 27-31”.
-Cougars typically walk in a straight, alternating fashion, and prints are as wide, or wider than they are long.  Prints are typically 2.7 to 4.0” or greater in length, and 2.8 to 4.5” or greater in width.
-Mountain lions historically occurred throughout much of the Americas, including throughout Wisconsin. However, prior to their comeback from extirpation in the state, the last known animal was killed in 1908. Now, recently several verified sightings have been made in northern and central Wisconsin, and further southward, although all have been wandering males from the Black Hills region of South Dakota, and no re-established breeding populations are currently known in Wisconsin.
-Felid tracks typically do not display claw marks unless the animal was running or pouncing. Felid tracks also typically have a third lobe on the hind edge of the heel pad, doubly lobed fore-edges of the heel pads, and the two fore-most toe pads are less aligned.

Domestic House Cat (Felis catus)
-Domestic house cats can vary considerably in size, color, pattern, and morphology, making generalized physical identification difficult. Some breeds, or even individuals can be relatively large or easily misidentified through errors in perspective, however.
-The average domestic house cat, however, ranges from 7 to 12 lbs. (sometimes 15-20 lbs. depending on the breed and/or individual). The average height is 8-10”.
-Felid tracks typically do not display claw marks unless the animal was running or pouncing. Felid tracks also typically have a third lobe on the hind edge of the heel pad, doubly lobed fore-edges of the heel pads, and the two fore-most toe pads are less aligned.
-Domestic cat tracks are typically smaller (1-1.5”) than Canadian lynx, bobcat, or mountain lion tracks.
-Stray or feral domestic cats can occur throughout Wisconsin, as well as throughout the world.

Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadansis)
-The Canadian lynx is a relatively small to medium sized felid ranging throughout much of Alaska, Canada, and the northern United States.
-In Wisconsin, the range and distribution is not well studied or understood. Most of the records from the state come from the northern-most counties in its northern and mixed forest habitats, however, and no current breeding populations in the state are currently known. Since 1870, there have been only 28 verified records in Wisconsin.
-Lynx occurrence in Wisconsin is quite infrequent and therefore is thought to be transient animals due to lack of evidence of breeding or establishment in the state.
-The average body length ranges from 34.4” to 40”, and the average weight ranges from 15 to 30 lbs. Height at the shoulder ranges from 18 to 22”.
-The lynx’s short, thick coat can range in color from yellowish-brown to frosted gray with variable darker spots, most often on the sides and limbs. The limbs are also long, and paws large and broad. The Canadian lynx can also be identified by its longer tufts of fur on their facial regions and ear tips than the bobcat, as well as having a shorter tail that is completely encircled in a dark tail tip.
-Canadian lynx typically walk in a meandering, alternating pattern, and have prints twice the size of a domestic house cat’s (2 to 2 ½”). Prints are as wide, or wider than they are long, and may also display handles in deep snow.
-Felid tracks typically do not display claw marks unless the animal was running or pouncing. Felid tracks also typically have a third lobe on the hind edge of the heel pad, doubly lobed fore-edges of the heel pads, and the two fore-most toe pads are less aligned.

Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
-Bobcats are relatively small to medium-sized felids that range widely across much of North America including southeastern Canada to Mexico.
-Body length typically ranges from 25-30”, and weights are usually 15 to 35 lbs. They stand 18-21” at the shoulder typically.
-In Wisconsin, bobcats can occur throughout much of the state in a variety of habitats, from mixed hardwood swamps, pine flatwoods, upland hardwood forests, old fields, and agricultural areas interspaced with forests or heavily wooded areas.
-Bobcats are named for their identifying feature of very short tails (usually 5 to 6”) tipped with black and white. Their coat color can be variable, from reddish-brown to brownish gray with darker spots and grayish overtones. The legs are fairly long, and there are also distinctive tufts of fur around their facial regions and ear tips.
-Bobcats typically walk in a meandering, alternating pattern, and have prints twice the size of a domestic house cat’s (2 to 2 ½”). Prints are as wide, or wider than they are long, and may also display handles in deep snow.
-Felid tracks typically do not display claw marks unless the animal was running or pouncing. Felid tracks also typically have a third lobe on the hind edge of the heel pad, doubly lobed fore-edges of the heel pads, and the two fore-most toe pads are less aligned.

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
-The red fox is a small to medium sized, slender bodied canid with a medium length reddish, reddish-orange, to yellowish-red coat, and white fur on the ventral surface and oftentimes tail tip. The black ear tips and limbs are also identifying characteristics.
-Other less commonly seen color phases of the red fox may also be seen, including the black fox, silver fox, and cross fox, which can be identified by its black cross-like marking on the shoulders, and yellowish to grayish brown coats.
-In Wisconsin, the average length is 38.4 to 41.3”, and an average weight of 9 to 13 lbs.
-The red fox is distributed throughout Wisconsin, but the largest populations are in western, central, and southern Wisconsin. They prefer open/edge habitats including brushy fencelines, field and forest edges, wooded stream and lake borders, and also agricultural and residential areas.
-Foxes walk or trot in a linear, alternating pattern which may be two print or four print. Red foxes may also exhibit pouncing behavior similar to felids. Prints are dainty, and ovular (2.3 to 3.1” in size), and usually show claw marks and drag marks.

Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
-The gray fox is a relatively small, slender bodied canid distinguished from most other canids by its grizzled, grayish to grayish brown dorsal coat, reddish, cinnamon, to buff colored neck region and underparts, black tipped tails, and dorsal median manes of black tipped hairs.
-Average body length is 31.4 to 44.30″ and the tails range from 10.8 to 17.4″.
-Gray foxes average 6.6 to 15.5 lbs., with males slightly larger than females. The average height ranges from 10 to 12″.
-Gray foxes occupy deciduous wooded, brushy, or rocky areas including forests, woodlands, old fields, and farmlands throughout southern, central, and northwestern Wisconsin, but tend to be the most common in southwestern and extreme western Wisconsin.
-Foxes walk or trot in a linear, alternating pattern which may be two print or four print. Red foxes may also exhibit pouncing behavior similar to felids. Prints are dainty, and ovular (2.3 to 3.1” in size), and usually show claw marks and drag marks.

 

Coyote (Canis latrans)
-Coyotes are medium sized canids ranging in weight from 15 to 46 lbs., and roughly 32 to 40” in body length. At the shoulder, most coyotes range from 18 to 24”.
-Coyotes can be quite geographically variable in size and color, which can range from short to medium length grayish, grayish-yellow, to reddish-gray, inter-mixed with tawny or dirty lighter colored hairs and markings, and with lighter colored throat and ventral surfaces. The ears are pointed and erect, and the tail is loosely held, unlike felids.
-Coyotes are highly adaptable and well distributed throughout Wisconsin, often even in urban, suburban, and agricultural areas of southern Wisconsin. They may also occupy forests and forest edges and clearings, brushlands, wetland margins, and a wide variety of other habitats.
-Coyotes typically walk or trot in a linear, alternating pattern (less commonly two or four print), and tracks typically are 2.5 to 3.5” in size.
-Canid tracks typically display claw marks, lack a third lobe on the hind edge of the heel pad, closely aligned front two toe pads giving the print a triangular appearance, and single lobed on the fore-edge of the heel pad.

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)
-Gray wolves, often also known as timber wolves, are a medium-sized to large canids, and are the largest specie of indigenous canid in Wisconsin. Gray wolves can measure 50 to 70” in body length, and 23 to 35” at the shoulder. Gray wolves can range in weight from 70 to 143 lbs.
-The gray wolf’s dorsal coat color can vary in color from grayish, to grayish-brown, blackish-brown, or black with lighter colored fur on the throat and ventral surface. The chest is also narrow, feet and paws large, and the tail is held straight (and is 15-19” in length). A pointed snout, erect ears, and distinctive tufts of hair around the ears can distinguish gray wolves from large cats.
-Gray wolves were formerly distributed throughout Wisconsin prior to settlement in 1832 with estimates of 3,000 to 5,000 animals. However, they were hunted to extirpation in the state in 1959. Now, however, wolves have made a comeback in the state, since a pack was discovered on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border in 1974. It is now estimated that there are between 197 and 203 animals in several counties of northern, northwestern, and north-central to west-central areas of the state.
-Wolves typically walk or trot in a linear, alternating pattern but may walk or gallop in a two print or four print pattern. Prints are 4” or greater in size.
-Canid tracks typically display claw marks, lack a third lobe on the hind edge of the heel pad, closely aligned front two toe pads giving the print a triangular appearance, and single lobed on the fore-edge of the heel pad.

Domestic Dog (Canis familaris)
-Domestic dogs can vary immensely in color, size, pattern, and morphology, making generalized physical identification difficult. Many mid-sized to large breeds can be misidentified for big cats, however.
-Domestic dogs can vary considerably in height, ranging from only 2 1/2” to 42” at the shoulder and 3.7 to 98” in body length. Domestic dogs can also vary considerably in weight, from 4.0 oz. for the tiniest breeds to 343 lbs.
-Stray or feral dogs can occur throughout Wisconsin, as well as throughout the world.
-Ears, tails, heads, and muzzles can also all be highly variable, and all of these can be folded, V-Shaped, cropped, button-eared, cocked, pricked, or drop eared.
-Canid tracks typically display claw marks, lack a third lobe on the hind edge of the heel pad, closely aligned front two toe pads giving the print a triangular appearance, and single lobed on the fore-edge of the heel pad.

Fisher (Martes pennanti)
-A large member of the weasel (or mustelid) family, fishers have short legs and long bodies from 33 to 41”, and may weight 3 to 12 lbs. on average, although larger sizes have been reported. Tail length is 13 to 17”.
-Fishers have a coat color ranging from blackish to dark brown, with lighter shades of brown, tan, silver, and gold colored hairs.
-Fishers historically ranged throughout Wisconsin in forested areas, but due to trapping, logging, and forest fires, are now found mainly in the northern third of Wisconsin. They have been reintroduced or are making comebacks in southern Wisconsin, however.
-Fishers lope in an angled two print pattern characteristic of most mustelids, but may walk in an alternating pattern or three to four point gallops. Prints are 3 to 4.5” or greater, have five toe pads, and may show claw marks. Foot and heel pads are also chevron shaped.

Northern River Otter (Lontra/Lutra canadensis) -Northern river otters are a medium to large mustelid species that was historically very common across much of North America, including the United States and Canada. Populations in many areas have decreased, however due to urbanization, fur trading and trapping, and increased pollution.
-River otters are distributed throughout Wisconsin, and may be seen within or near watershed habitats. These habitats can include riparian areas, wet meadows and grasslands, marshes, slow moving rivers and streams, lakes, and large ponds surrounded by ample vegetation.
-River otters can range in total body length from 33.5-51.25”. River otters may range in weight from 10-30 lbs.
-River otter tracks have five toes, and are webbed, which are distinguishing features from felids.
-Northern river otters have long bodies with short, dense, and glossy blackish to dark brown coats, short limbs with webbed feet and digits, inconspicuous ears, and long, tapered tails. Their heads and necks are also very flat and muscular, and are closely the same size.

Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
-Raccoons have very distinctive, identifiable black masks through the eye and cheek regions, tapering towards the underside of their throats. Bands of white also border the black masks on the snout and brows.
-Raccoons also have pointed muzzles with black, naked noses, erect, somewhat pointed ears bordered in white, and four long feet with naked soles and five toes with curved claws. Claws are non-retractable.
-Raccoons also have heavily furred, ringed tails usually only half their body lengths. 4 to 7 alternating black and yellow to yellow-brown rings characterize their tails.
-The rest of their coat color can range in color from grizzled brown, blackish brown, to brownish-yellow with lighter gray sides and undersides.
-Raccoons can vary in weight from 6 3/4 to 25 lbs. depending on the age and sex of the animal. Record weight was 49 lbs.
-Body length ranges from 23.6 to 41.3″ depending on age and sex of the animal as well. Height ranges from 9.0 to 12″ on average.
-Although they are clearly not felids, raccoons have been mistaken in several instances for big cats.
-Raccoons can occur in a variety of habitats throughout Wisconsin, and much of North America and Canada, but tend to be most concentrated in the southern two thirds of the state. They are common even in agricultural, urban, and suburban areas.

American Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
-The American black bear is the third largest mammal species in Wisconsin following the elk (Cervus elaphus) and the moose (Alces alces). Black bears are also the most common, widely distributed, and smallest members of the bear family, Ursidae in North America.
-Black bears are large, stocky, heavy-set animals with very short, inconspicuous tails, unlike felids. Their coat color typically ranges from black, dark brown, or dark blackish-brown. Several other less common color phases also occur, including lighter colored brown or tan “black” bears, “cinnamon” bears, and more rarely, white “black” bears. -Black bears also have prominent lighter colored brown muzzles, short, rounded, and erect ears.
-Adult male bears can range from 47-70” in body length, and can weight 250 to 350 lbs. Female bears are typically smaller, at 50-58” in body length, and 120-180 lbs. Most adults average 24-36” at the shoulder. The record weight in Wisconsin was nearly 700 lbs.
-Each foot has five toes, equipped with non-retractable claws (unlike most felids), which leave claw prints in their tracks. The front heel pads are also quite wide and narrowed. -Historically, black bears inhabited the forested regions of much of North America, including throughout Wisconsin. The primary range of black bears in Wisconsin now, however, is within the northern two thirds of the state, although occasional sightings of bears have been made further south to Iowa County in the western half of the state. Black bear sightings are rare elsewhere in the state.
-Black bears may occur in the forested or shrubby areas of their range, but may also be seen in wet meadows, riparian areas, ridge-tops, and swampy hardwood and coniferous forests.

White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
-Even toed ungulates with two digits present.
-White tailed deer are widely distributed throughout Wisconsin in a variety of habitats, but most often open forests and woodlands, meadows, forest and woodland clearings, and agricultural/farmland.
-Average weight various depending on age, sex, habitat, food availability, and season, but can range from 99-300 lbs.
-Body length ranges from 59.8 to 83.8” (or roughly 5 to 7 feet). Limbs are long and thin, and average height at the shoulder is approximately 24 to 36” (or 2 to 3 feet). Tail is short with a white underside, and is only 3.1 to 4.7”.
-Coat color and thickness can vary depending on the subspecies, season, and other factors, but is typically a thin, short reddish-brown to grayish-brown in color. Males also develop antlers, and ears are also large (about 10”) on average.

Domestic/Feral Pig (Sus scrofa)
-Even toed ungulates with either two or four digits and with the plane of symmetry passing between the third and fourth digits of each foot.
-Can be variable in color, but usually blackish, grayish, to dark tawny brown or grayish-brown with short, coarse hairs.
-Also has short limbs, heavy, rotund bodies, relatively large and pointed heads, and prominent snouts with rounded, cartilaginous disks.
-Well adapted to a wide variety of habitats in Wisconsin, from moist forests, oak forests, and shrub-lands. Disturbed throughout Wisconsin, but mainly in the western and northeastern regions.
-Domestic swine can also vary considerably in size, but can range from 100 to 440 lbs, averaging 110 to 130 lbs.

Here are some interesting things further worth mentioning about cougars/mountain lions (Puma concolor) in Wisconsin: -Most verified cougar and other big cat sightings have come from trail cams used by hunters and landowners, not fuzzy/grainy photos/video or questionable eyewitness accounts.
-All verified animals identified by the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) through DNA have originated westward from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
-All animals found in WI have been wandering males in search of females. A breeding population of cougars in the state must include one or more females.
-If the nearest breeding population is over 500 miles westward, Iowa and Minnesota would see breeding populations of cougars before WI.
-Females are less likely to disperse farther distances than male cats.
-From 2008 to 2014, there were 2,002 reports of cougar sightings in the state. Of these, only 376 (19%) included sufficient evidence to identify the species.
-70% of the 376 sightings were animals that were not cougars, while 30% of sightings were inconclusive.
-Many other animals can be mistaken for cougars depending on conditions, including deer, coyotes, foxes, fishers, bobcats, and even domestic dogs and cats.
-Felid tracks very rarely display claw prints unless the animal was running or pouncing.
-Canid tracks also have a single frontal lobe and double rear lobe, while most felid tracks have a double frontal lobe and a third hind lobe.
-Tracks of many other animals can also often be confused for a large cat’s.

Woodchuck or Groundhog (Marmota monax)
-Woodchucks, which are also known as marmots, or groundhogs, are a large terrestrial (ground dwelling) squirrel species which can also be mistaken for a big cat.
-Adult woodchucks can range from 16.5 to 32.25″ in body length, with short to moderate length bushy tails ranging from 3.5 to 6.9″. They may range from 3.5 to 10″ in height.
-Woodchucks can range in weight from 4.5 to 14 lbs. on average.
-A woodchuck’s coat color can vary in color from grizzled or frosty brown, grayish, reddish, blackish, to reddish-brown, and the fore-legs and sternum are washed with deeper reddish, to reddish orange. Wooly hair covers the flanks and dorsum. Woodchucks also have small, rounded ears, and short, powerful legs.
-Woodchucks occur throughout Wisconsin in a variety of habitats, but most often favor open woodlands, lightly wooded fields, savannahs, pastures, meadows, fencerows, and stream banks.

Sources

-Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Cougars in Wisconsin. Accessed 01/12/17. http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/cougar.html

– UW Stevens Point Department of Biology-Vertebrate Collection: Mammals of Wisconsin. Accessed 01/12/17. http://www.uwsp.edu/biology/VertebrateCollection/Pages/Vertebrates/mammalsOfWisconsin.aspx

-Wild Things Unlimited Track Identification Guide. Accessed 1/12/17 http://www.wildthingsultd.org/publications/tracking-identification-guide/

09 September 2015. OutdoorHub. WI Cougar Sightings Continue, No Evidence They’re Settling Down.
http://www.outdoorhub.com/news/2015/09/09/wisconsin-cougar-sightings-continue-but-no-evidence-theyre-settling-down/