The Upper Midwest region (the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan and the province of Ontario in Canada) has exhibited a substantial amount of cougar activity since 2008 when records of dispersing young male mountain lions, primarily from the Black Hills region of southwestern South Dakota, began to increase. The northern and eastern parts of Ontario have been excluded from the map since there are no registered confirmations of mountain lion presence there.
Note the interactive map below, click on the respective dots for detailed information concerning specific confirmations. A summary of the evidence for each state/province can be found below the map.
Minnesota: Minnesota lies adjacent to South Dakota, where in the 1990s mountain lions recolonized suitable habitat in the southwestern part of the state bordering Wyoming, and where a huntable population of resident mountain lions now exists. Minnesota also borders North Dakota, which carries a small breeding population in their western Badlands. Not surprisingly, since September 2009, The Cougar Network, with assistance of Minnesota DNR wildlife staff, has documented a dozen confirmations of dispersing wild mountain lions. In addition, there are five confirmations prior to November 2007, one dating back more than twenty years. In Minnesota, multiple confirmations of individual cougars occur less frequently than in Wisconsin or the northwestern region of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. Despite that, in December 2009, the Champlin cougar produced three confirmations as the young male cat moved across the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities, through Stillwater, and on into Wisconsin where he was detected several more times. This is the cat, also known as the “CT Cougar,” that was subsequently detected in upstate New York in December 2010 and then killed in Connecticut on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in June 2011, 70 miles from NYC! Genetic testing of the Champlin lion revealed that he was a descendant of mountain lions in the Black Hills, as was the case with another young male that dispersed into northwestern Minnesota during winter 2004-2005. The cougar road-killed in Bemidji in September 2009 was also a young male and a descendant from the population in the Badlands of western North Dakota. We estimate that a minimum of seven, unique, presumed wild mountain lions have been detected in Minnesota since September 2009, including at least three that are now dead (Bemidji, Round Lake, and Milford, Connecticut).
Wisconsin: In January 2008, after nearly a century of apparent absence, Wisconsin registered their first confirmation of a wild cougar near Milton. Since then, Wisconsin has shown a remarkable surge in cougar activity, where multiple confirmations documenting individual lions appear to be the rule, rather than exception. For example, during 2011, seven trail camera records of cougars occurred between July 25 and Nov. 12, and likely as not, all seven records resulted from just two lions. The first, a radio-collared cat, was photographed twice in Wisconsin prior to September (and three additional times between Sept. 8 and Nov. 13, on or near the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan). The second lion was photographed first on Oct. 16, 2011 and apparently then triggered trail cameras at four other locations on through Nov. 12. This second cougar traveled northward more than 140 miles during a 27-day period, where he was last detected near Park Falls, approximately 45 miles south of Lake Superior. During winter 2009-2010, the Champlin mountain lion also produced multiple confirmations in Wisconsin, including three sites where his presence was genetically confirmed, which made it possible to accurately map certain segments of the lion’s journey. It is especially interesting that WDNR (with an assist from Michigan DNR) has been able to identify most, if not all, of the lions they currently hold records for. Genetic “finger prints” obtained from samples collected in the field have thus far identified five of at least six lions known to have traveled in or passed through Wisconsin since Jan. 2008. At least two of these dispersers have died; both were descendants of the South Dakota population. One was the 2008 Milton cougar, which was shot in the northern suburbs of Chicago just three months after he had been detected in Wisconsin, and the other was the Champlin cougar, which had also passed through Minnesota and New York prior to being road-killed in Connecticut in June 2011.
Michigan: Michigan has had several confirmations since their first in summer 2008. As anticipated, all confirmations to date have occurred in the Upper Peninsula and likely features lions that first traveled through Wisconsin. The most interesting confirmations involve a recent spike in activity that occurred between Sept. 8 and Nov. 20, 2011, including three trail camera photographs and a sighting (confirmed by snow tracks) of the radio-collared lion that had been detected in Wisconsin in July. Michigan DNR collected samples for genetic testing at a trail camera site in September and along a lion’s snow trail in December. Given the possibility of future detections in Michigan or elsewhere, those samples, along with any others that might eventually be obtained, hold the promise of revealing still more fascinating information concerning the identities and movements of mountain lions that have visited the northeastern Midwest, while their presence draws substantial interest from a host of human spectators. Contemplating the possibility that mountain lions might one day recolonize certain forested regions in the Upper Midwest has become an intriguing pastime for a growing number of Midwesterners; nonetheless, to date, no females have been detected in either Michigan or Wisconsin.
Ontario: Ontario, the Canadian province just north of the upper Midwest states, has only one Class II confirmation, which is in the southwest corner of the province.
The Upper Midwest region is perhaps the most favorable corridor for cougars to attempt repopulating the east. It has a relatively low human population, significant forest cover in northern areas, and high prey populations, including deer, beaver, wild turkeys, and in the northern areas, moose (cougars have taken moose calves). Whitetail deer numbers in this region are at historic highs and they occur in areas where they were historically scarce prior to the early 1900s. It is interesting to note that wolves, another top predator, were never completely extirpated from the region indicating a historic supply of prey and suitable habitat. Additionally, the Mississippi River is not so wide as farther south, and thus not likely to inhibit eastward movement. There is a possible analogy to the origin of the eastern coyote. Although it is not known definitively, it has been hypothesized that the origin of the much larger eastern coyote in the northeastern states was through Canada (Ontario and Quebec) where this species hybridized with wolves and then migrated into upstate New York and New England. It is possible the cougar could use a similar dispersal route to the northeastern United States and the Champlin/CT cougar has demonstrated that potential.