One Cougar’s Epic Hike

Mountain lions

It is thought that wild cougars disappeared from Wisconsin by about 1910. ©Henry H. Holdsworth.

On June 11, 2011, a mountain lion was killed on the busy Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Connecticut. He was hit by a car. I don’t live in Connecticut — Wisconsin is my home — nor have I ever seen this particular cat. But I still feel the two of us share a connection, probably because he walked across my state, defying all those who initially said that such an adventurous undertaking by a cougar wasn’t possible.

When the spirit moves you

It is thought that wild cougars disappeared from Wisconsin by about 1910. Although reports of seeing them started surfacing again in the 1940s, such sightings were passed off as being of escaped captive mountain lions or misidentifications. But then, on January 18, 2008, a cougar visited a barn in Milton, Wisconsin. This time, the evidence was undeniable: DNA taken from a small drop of blood that came from a cut on the animal’s foot identified him as a wild cougar from South Dakota. Unfortunately, four months later, police in Chicago shot him.

Mountain lions

Male mountain lions normally disperse in search of females, but usually travel only about a hundred miles. ©Henry H. Holdsworth.

But in December 2009, police in Champlin, Minnesota spotted another cougar. Later that month, he was tracked by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources personnel in the state’s northern counties of St. Croix and Dunn. Based on tracks and other evidence, biologists believe this cougar then passed the city of Eau Claire and Clark County before heading north. In May, a trail camera caught a photo of a cougar in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is believed to be the same animal. From Michigan, the cougar probably passed through Ontario, Canada, and then crossed into New York, over the St. Lawrence River, before reaching Connecticut.

The cougar, a young male that weighed 140 pounds, probably came from the Black Hills of South Dakota and had struck out a couple of years ago to establish

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his own territory.

Wisconsin wetland

I, too, have a dream of walking across Wisconsin. ©John T. Andrews.

After the cougar was killed, officials were able to reconstruct his wanderings by matching DNA from his tongue with DNA samples taken in Minnesota and in Wisconsin. Because genetic material — analyzed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Montana — was used to follow his movements, there was confirmation that he traveled somewhere around 1,600 miles, according to Adrian Wydeven, a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. His epic journey is the longest ever recorded for a mountain lion. The previous record for a male cougar dispersal was 663 miles, while the average dispersal is only about one hundred miles.

Our dreams are not so different

So what compelled this particular cougar to keep going, to keep traveling the world until he found what he was looking for? Perhaps what motivated him to wander may be what motivates us all: an urge to move through landscape.

I also have a dream of walking across the state. My corridor, however, would be the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a 1,200-mile hike. The trail traverses Wisconsin from east to west, roughly following the shape of a glacier that retreated ten thousand years ago. It, too, would be an epic journey. A lot of people I know say I can’t do it.

But a certain mountain lion tells me I can.

Are there any adventures that you’ve dreamed of undertaking, despite the naysayers?

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,

Candy

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