Rawr: ‘Cougar’ catfight stirs controversy

A cougar. (PHOTO: Bob Haarmans, Flickr CC)

An actual cougar. (PHOTO: Bob Haarmans, Flickr CC)

Last week, a young hunter perched in his deer stand near Nashwauk got the story of a lifetime without even firing a shot.

Here’s the description from an article by Dave Orrick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

I wasn’t there, but I know this: Jordan Bowen saw a big wildcat try to attack a deer.

The deer escaped, and the cat bounded up a tree. Way up, especially for such a big cat. Then it started snarling and howling and went down the tree. Then it got into a brief fight with another big cat.

And Jordan, a 16-year-old from Rush City, got to see it all from his deer stand.

A kid could do worse than that on a day in the woods.

What’s not clear, however, is whether Bowen saw two cougars, he and his family’s assertion, or whether the he saw bobcats, the conclusion of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Now before I continue with the details of this controversy, know this.

Every back woods roustabout, Good Time Charlie, and wily rustic sage this side of the Dakota border has a story about a cougar, also known as a mountain lion. They saw one on a trail cam. They dodged one on the highway. Walked out back to take a leak and there it was, big as life!

And near every DNR big cat expert has a response. No, they didn’t.


The identification of cougars remains a touchy subject for Northern Minnesotans. Cougars are rare here, but do appear once in a while. No one has documented a breeding pair in Minnesota since the days of tall masted ships on Lake Superior. And yet, the DNR seems to have an almost pathological aversion to admitting that the large predators might be moving closer to the state’s North Woods.

The seeds of this conflict may be found in the Minnesota DNR’s original 1878 motto, “Quidquid est, fringilla non cougar.” (English: “Whatever it is, it’s not a cougar.”)

So, we return to Orrick’s story of Bowen’s big cat sighting and the response of the DNR.

After Bowen reported his story last week, Orrick talked to DNR large carnivore specialist Dan Stark. Stark came up with the idea to bring a large cardboard cutout of a mountain lion to compare to the picture Bowen took of one of the cats.

Stark concluded that the cat in the picture looked smaller than the cutout photographed in the same tree. (See for yourself).

However, like a dicey pre-election poll, there are problems with the methodology. Stark put the faux cat in a lower branch, a few feel below where the real cat was seen. So there’s an optical illusion at play that makes one wonder what the picture would look like if the cutout was placed where the cat actually stood.

The Bowens swear up and down the cats were larger than a bobcat. They even allege some sort of cougar denial conspiracy at the DNR. Meanwhile, wildlife biologists say that bobcats are deceptively big, often faking out those who see them.

The big cat question remains. Cougar or bobcat? Decide for yourself. Just be sure you’re confident before you lock in your feline answer.


  1. It’s all just big government intrusion into our lives. And to think we paid for this “expert” to cut out a piece of cardboard, drive up from the cities, hang it haphazardly in a tree…and claim he was doing “research”. What a joke. We probably paid for his lunch and gas as well.

  2. Stark lives and works in Grand Rapids. Personally I thought the use of a cardboard cutout was an inexpensive technique that went beyond the traditional interview with the hunter. A great idea. Pity it wasn’t higher in the tree.

  3. From the time I saw the pictures and heard the audio, I was 100% sure they were bobcats.
    If you enlarge the photos on a monitor, you can Clearly see the spots and stripes on the underside of the legs and belly. There is no long tail visible. What looks like a tail in one picture is just the other hind leg. People see what they want to see. I wish we had more cougars in MN, but these aren’t them!

  4. The question really should be, “how did you differentiate this from a bobcat?” I hear lynx and cougar stories often only to find out, after in depth questioning, it probably was a bobcat. What did the tail look like? Did it have ear spikes? How long? Any spots near hind legs, inner thighs? How many cougar, lynx, bobcats have you seen? Nevertheless what ever Mr.Bowen saw, it is still a good find. If there are a million bobcats, you will never see 999,999 of them.

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