Published May 01, 2011, 12:00 AM

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald

Genetic tests reveal likely origin of Bemidji road-kill mountain lion

According to John Erb, furbearer biologist for the DNR in Grand Rapids, Minn., results from the Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Mont., suggest the mountain lion killed by a car in September 2009 near Bemidji is genetically similar to western North Dakota mountain lions.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald photo of mountain lion struck by automobile

This 114-pound male mountain lion was killed by a car in September 2009 near Bemidji. Genetic tests suggest the cat originated in western North Dakota. (Minnesota DNR photo)

A mountain lion killed by a vehicle near Bemidji in September 2009 appears to be a wild cat from the Badlands of western North Dakota, the Department of Natural Resources says.

According to John Erb, furbearer biologist for the DNR in Grand Rapids, Minn., results from the Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Mont., suggest the cat is genetically similar to western North Dakota mountain lions.

Erb said it took this long to determine the cat's likely origin because the lab first had to obtain enough samples from mountain lions from areas of the country with known populations. Simply put, the lab results indicate it is possible to differentiate between the DNA of western North Dakota mountain lions and cats from other areas, such as the Black Hills of South Dakota.

"That took quite some time," Erb said. "Now that they have been able to obtain enough samples from known populations to assess genetic differences, it appears that some differences do occur that should help determine the likely origin of some cougars that turn up in Minnesota and elsewhere, assuming DNA can be obtained.

"If populations are not genetically distinct, this type of assessment would be much more difficult."

Genetic samples can be obtained in many ways, including car kills, live captures and even hair or scat samples. Both North Dakota and South Dakota have offered limited mountain lion seasons in recent years, enabling the lab to obtain additional samples from the populations closest to Minnesota.

Bemidji incident

The mountain lion near Bemidji made news when it was hit and killed by a motorist on the Schoolcraft Bridge, which crosses the Schoolcraft River near Carr Lake Road on the south side of Bemidji.

According to Erb, the mountain lion was a male and weighed 114 pounds. By all indications, he said, the cat was healthy and showed no signs of being in captivity. Captive animals often are declawed, spayed or neutered or have some type of tag or mark.

Erb said there have been five such captive lions captured or killed while roaming Minnesota during the past 10 years.

"We know there are at least dozens of captive mountain lions in Minnesota at this time," he said.

Erb said the age of the cat isn't yet available but most likely was a younger male. That's consistent with other mountain lions verified in Minnesota and other Midwestern states.

Young males are the most likely animals to disperse from known populations.

Still, Erb said there are "two big caveats" for the Bemidji cat: There's no way to say for certain the mountain lion was wild, and even though the genetics are similar to western North Dakota cougars, biologists can't determine the path that eventually put the cat on the outskirts of Bemidji.

"We have no reason to doubt it's wild, but just because it was genetically similar to cats in North Dakota doesn't prove by itself that the animal was, in fact, living in the wild," Erb said. "Someone could illegally capture a cougar somewhere and keep it in captivity; we can't rule out that a cougar of North Dakota origin somehow ended up in captivity, with it later escaping or being released."

But that's highly unlikely, Erb said.

Nor, he said, can it be proven the cat didn't live outside of North Dakota before ending up in Minnesota.

"You don't know the exact path it took," he said.

Minnesota status

To the best of his knowledge, Erb said the Bemidji cat is the first case of a road-killed mountain lion in Minnesota. Places with even small populations, say 100 to 250, such as Florida and the Dakotas, typically report anywhere from five to 10 car kills a year, Erb said.

That lends credence, he said, to the DNR's contention that Minnesota doesn't have a breeding population of mountain lions, but that the cats confirmed in the state so far are transient animals, usually males, passing through from areas with known populations.

"There's nothing wrong with a healthy debate, and many people like to debate the presence of a population in Minnesota," Erb said. "I can only base my current assessment on verifiable, scientific information.

"There's also no evidence of kitten production or an animal using an established home range in Minnesota, or to my knowledge anywhere in the Midwest."

There's no doubt, though, that verified sightings have become more common in Minnesota, Erb said, including a flurry last fall of five trail camera images that he's confident came from the state.

"They ranged all the way from the southwest corner of the state to the northeast corner of the state," he said.

But at the same time, Erb said 95 percent or more of reported cougar sightings either are not verifiable or are misidentifications. Even with photographic evidence, people commonly mistake bobcats or even housecats for mountain lions, Erb said; the list also includes wolves, dogs and other critters.

Erb said the mountain lion killed near Bemidji still is in a freezer in the Grand Rapids DNR office. Eventually, he said, the fur will be used for a mount, and the carcass will go to the Bell Museum in the Twin Cities.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.