Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officers say the animal in trail cam photos taken in the backyard of Princeton resident Dennis Jelinek the evening of Nov. 1 looks like a stray cat and not a cougar.
“We saw nothing but a house cat,” said DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor Ted Dick by phone from the Cambridge area DNR office on Nov. 20. He later added: “I’m not
saying I’m right, but for our opinion, it is not a question that it is a house cat. The size and markings, the head shape and tail are not right (to be a cougar).
The semi-retired Jelinek, 65, says he still believes the images are of a cougar.
“Have you ever seen a house cat 5 1/2 feet long?” he asked.
Jelinek explained that one of the photos shows the slinking animal in a position where its butt is aligned with where the uncut grass begins in Jelinek’s backyard, and the front of the animal reaches the wooden border below the bird feeder. That distance is 5 1/2 feet, he explains.
Oct. 30 was the first time that Jelinek had ever set up a trail cam on his property. Its night photos are black and white, using infrared technology, and the daylight photos are in color.
One of his trail cam photos shows four raccoons feasting on corn in his ground bird feeder. Two other photos show what Jelinek says are a grey fox.
Jelinek’s residence is part of a townshome development that overlooks the West Branch of the Rum River. It lends itself to wildlife sightings. Jelinek says he has seen deer standing beneath his deck, has seen raccoons eating out of his upper level bird feeder (until he repositioned it), and once saw bears along the river bottom near the townhomes.
He says he’s also seen lots of domestic cats coming around his property. But the one in his photos taken at about 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1 looks like a cougar, Jelinek maintains. He called the DNR right away about it and a conservation officer came to his house to see him and his trail cam photos. The conservation officer gave him the opinion that it was a house cat, and brought the photos back to the DNR office in Cambridge.
There, DNR Supervisor Dick, and wildlife officer Doug Welinski also concluded that the photos are of a house cat. Welinski is a 25-year veteran in wildlife conservation, Dick said.
When people see a feline crouch down “they get messed up” in deciding what the animal is, Dick said.
The best way to gauge what an animal may be is to have some object with a known measurement alongside the animal or its track to get the scale, Dick continued. He explained that a cougar track, for example, is 4 to 4 1/2 inches across, while a bobcat’s track is about 3 inches wide.
Dick said Minnesota has a lot of bobcats, but he also said he doesn’t believe Jelinek’s photos show a bobcat.
Jelinek asked, “Does the DNR say there are no cougars in Minnesota?”
“The DNR is not denying that cougars could be in Minnesota,” Dick said. But they are “pretty darn rare between here and the East Coast,” he said.
Dick added that the Minnesota DNR gets about 100 calls per year, averaging one to two times per week, of possible cougar sightings.
“It’s a fun thing they’re doing,” Dick said about people getting photos of animals with trail cameras. “I find it interesting, too. I get these calls. It’s not like anyone is setting up a hoax. People tend to misunderstand.”
Dick, talking about data on cougars in the wild, mentioned the confirmed report of a cougar that had been radio collared in the Black Hills passing through the Roseau area in northern Minnesota.
Jelinek said he has heard reports of a cougar in the area of Sherburne County Road 2 in Baldwin Township just south of Princeton city limits.
The DNR, online, says that cougars, which are sometimes called pumas and mountain lions, were found throughout most of Minnesota prior to European settlement, “though never in large numbers. Today they are rarely seen but occasionally do appear.”
Some may think the number of cougars in Minnesota is increasing, the website says, but “the number of verified cougar observations indicate that cougar occurrence in Minnesota is the result of transient animals from the western Dakotas.” The DNR also says that its annual scent-post and winter tracking surveys have recorded no evidence to suggest the possibility of a resident breeding population of cougars in the state.
The website chronicles 14 verified cougar sightings in the past four years, including the documented trek of one male cougar from western South Dakota through Minnesota and Wisconsin to southwestern Connecticut. It also notes a shooting of a cougar in southwestern Minnesota’s Jackson County and that all of those incidents have sparked speculation about cougars in Minnesota.
The DNR says cougars have a “secretive nature,” but if anyone is facing a cougar directly, they should raise their arms to make themselves appear larger and then speak loudly and firmly. The DNR advises against running, crouching or lying on the ground during a cougar encounter.
The DNR also warns not to shoot a cougar even if livestock or pets are threatened. It explains that cougars are a protected species and may only be killed by a licensed peace officer or authorized permit holder.
If a person thinks they have seen a cougar, they should report it to a conservation officer or to local law enforcement so that evidence such as photographs, tracks, hair and scat can be located, identified, confirmed and documented, the DNR states.