Published May 08, 2011, 12:00 AM

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald

Q&A: Biologist Steve Loch sorts mountain lion facts from fiction

Wildlife biologist Steve Loch, Babbitt, Minn., often finds himself at the center of efforts to verify or disprove reports of mountain lion sightings in Minnesota and other parts of the Upper Midwest. And despite what so many people want to believe, Loch says, Minnesota likely doesn't have a breeding population of mountain lions.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

photo of Loch and lynx

Wildlife biologist Steve Loch, Babbitt, Minn., holds a lynx that had been captured and sedated in northeastern Minnesota as part of a research project in 2004. Loch, who has an interest in wild felines and other Northwoods predators, often finds himself at the center of efforts to disprove or verify reports of mountain lion sightings in Minnesota. (Submitted photo)

Steve Loch is an independent wildlife biologist who has extensively studied wild felines such as Canada lynx and mountain lions.

Loch, 61, of Babbitt, Minn., earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from St. Cloud (Minn.) State University. He often finds himself at the center of efforts to verify or disprove reports of mountain lion sightings in Minnesota and other parts of the Upper Midwest. And despite what so many people want to believe, Loch says, Minnesota likely doesn't have a breeding population of mountain lions.

There's no doubt, though, that verified sightings are on the increase in Minnesota, he said.

Loch, who has a "strong interest" in predator species associated with the Northwoods ecoregion, has worked across northern Minnesota, eastern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. He also studied great-gray owls in the late 1970s and 1980s, radio-tracking some individual birds as far north as the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken recently interviewed Loch about mountain lions and his experiences with researching the animals. Here's an edited transcript of that conversation:

Q. How long have you been studying mountain lions?

A. I first became interested in the possibility that dispersing wild mountain lions might occasionally turn up in Minnesota as a result of studies conducted by Dr. Jonathan Jenks at South Dakota State University and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks as they monitored a small lion population that had re-colonized the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. Their population increased in size from the mid-1990s on through approximately January 2010, when it was estimated at about 250 cats.

Q. What sparked your interest?

A. In late December 2004, Minnesota experienced its first verified record of a known wild dispersing young male lion. Thanks to Dr. Jenks and his student, Dan Thompson, much was known about that lion, since the cat had been radio-collared near Nemo, S.D., in May of that same year. In the process of dispersing to Minnesota, that lion traveled nearly 400 miles in just over three months' time. After that, it seemed at least somewhat legitimate to carry an interest in the possibility that other wild young male lions had either already immigrated to Minnesota, or would turn up here someday.

Q. What is the population status of mountain lions in the U.S., and where is the core of that population?

A. Self-sustaining populations of lions in the U.S. occur in west Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and all states farther west; also, there is a very small population in southern Florida. In the past decade, population estimates for the U.S. have been reported as high as 30,000 animals. More recently - that is, during just the past few decades - very small populations have become re-established or have increased in numbers in the Badlands of North Dakota, the extreme northwestern panhandle of Nebraska, and as already mentioned, the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Q. What's driving that increase in the Dakotas?

A. They have re-colonized available habitat in the western Dakotas.

In the 1960s, there were bounties on mountain lions in the West, which in some cases caused their populations to run quite low. Eventually, the agencies, and people in general, became more enlightened. Populations of deer and other "ungulates" increased due to better population management, bounty payments on lions ceased and both ungulate and lion populations increased. In certain regions of the West, mountain lion populations have increased tenfold since the days of bounty payments. Some ranges where lions had been extirpated, or where their prey densities had been decimated, are now occupied again.

Q. In Minnesota, there seems to be an element of conspiracy theory among at least part of the public that agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources are covering up the presence of mountain lions in the state. Any thoughts on that?

A. Yes. First, I think that's ridiculous. There's no reason for the Minnesota DNR or any other agency to cover up lion presence. If the DNR receives a solid record of lion occurrence, it's duly noted. That's not to say that all DNR personnel are particularly interested in mountain lions - to some it's just not a big deal ... lions are dispersing through Minnesota, so what? Lions are already protected by state statute; what more can DNR do?

Also, perhaps people aren't aware that certain folks working for the DNR have cited evidence of lion presence when there actually was no reasonable evidence, the same as some of the public have. For example, pawprints of a lynx, wolf or dog aren't evidence of a mountain lion.

Another thing some people might not realize is that the conspiracy theory crowd is present and active in essentially every eastern state, where there's still no evidence that lion populations exist. They are not unique to Minnesota.

Q. Why, do you think, is there so much interest from the public in mountain lions?

A. There are likely several reasons. Some people want to see all the fauna that originally resided here when settlement occurred to be represented on our landscape again. So, those people would have a general interest in seeing this species make a comeback. Just knowing that lions reside in Minnesota again would be somewhat satisfying for them.

Fear is another factor that likely generates considerable interest - many people who have not lived in mountain lion country fear lions; indeed, some who do live in lion country fear lions. I guess some people hold considerable interest in what they fear.

Also, if a person actually sees a mountain lion in Minnesota, they have just spotted one of the rarest animals in our state -- the lion's stature also makes that sighting sort of special.

Thus, the observer's sighting is very notable. That is perhaps the same reason the story behind sightings of other species might become exaggerated and a bobcat or housecat sighting, or a glimpse of some other species might be mentioned to others as a probable lion sighting.

Q. As a follow-up, why do you think that interest often borders on hysteria?

A. I don't really know. I am definitely convinced some people want to believe lions are around regardless of the quality of the evidence, and that this phenomenon is somewhat unique to this species and, perhaps, other species that could be considered potentially dangerous. So, it seems that at least in part, fear often contributes to the hysteria.

What astounds me is that some people seem to want to believe every single bit of hearsay or any fake Internet record offered up. And this is not just a circumstance that occurs in Minnesota; it occurs all across the eastern United States. There is often a reasonable explanation behind an alleged lion sighting and, yes, of course, sometimes a sighting is, indeed, the real thing. But frequently, an alleged lion sighting involves some other species and actually has nothing at all to do with a lion.

Also, if someone has been spinning lion tales to his or her neighbors for years, they are not likely to back away from such tales simply because someone challenges their claims; rather, they are likely to dig in.

Q. What are some of the worst examples of that hysteria you've witnessed?

A. By far, the most outrageous example of mountain lion mania that I've observed is that which has occurred in Michigan, where for more than a decade, one self-serving organization claims a breeding population of 80 to 100 mountain lions throughout the state, but Michigan has not encountered even a single specimen (carcass) during that same period of time. In other words, there's not a shred of usable evidence to substantiate their claim, but for some bizarre reason, those claims have been repeated by the Michigan media, often while the source of the claims uses pictures or videos of housecats or run-of-the-mill scratches on horses as their so-called evidence of the alleged lion population.

Also, last summer, near Wonewoc, Wis., a few people ignited a frenzy of hysteria in the area based on unfounded claims that a lion or lions had attacked livestock. This particular case of phantom fever gained momentum as a consequence of an error made by USDA Wildlife Services staff. So, again, although there was not a shred of evidence to support the claim, a Madison TV station ran roughly eight stories, all of them indicating that lion involvement was a matter of fact, but there was no evidence whatsoever to even hint that a lion had actually been involved. Of course, some of those Madison stories were carried by one of Minnesota's metro TV stations, which also presented the story as if it was fact.

Then there was a TV special foisted on the Minnesota public by a prominent metro TV station (KSTP) back in 2009 not long after the Bemidji lion was killed. The anchor found a person who claimed there was a breeding population of 200 to 300 mountain lions in Minnesota -- once again, without a shred of reasonable evidence to support his claim, which was totally absurd anyway. Yet some viewers were drawn in, perhaps especially as a result of all the other unfounded stories that had been aired in the metro area or elsewhere in Minnesota or the Midwest.

As verified lion records increase, the potential for media-driven hysteria also increases. But that doesn't necessarily have to occur.

Q. Of the mountain lion reports received in Minnesota, what percentage would you say are legitimate?

A. Where mountain lion populations actually exist, it is often stated that 90 percent of alleged sightings and reports are false. In the East, and even in Minnesota, I think that less than 1 percent of the sightings and reports that I have encountered are actually legitimate. This estimate might be difficult for some people to understand, but if they had followed up on the number of alleged sightings that I have, and had actually gotten to the bottom of some of those alleged sightings or records (even some photographic records), they, too, would eventually arrive at the same conclusion. And all of that just makes it more difficult to sort out and verify legitimate records.

I could likely argue that approximately 99.7 percent of the alleged puma sightings that occur in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa are completely bogus. "Errors" usually occur due to one of several reasons: namely, ignorance, exaggeration, misidentification, prevarication, hoax or outright fraud. The explanation as to why this happens, however, is not so obvious.

The bottom line: Hearsay doesn't cut it - extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If residents encounter a situation where lion presence, especially any that indicates reproduction, has occurred, they should do their best to collect evidence; for example, photographs of the animal or its sign, at that very moment, and then make sure that evidence is forwarded to personnel at the DNR who actually deal with these matters. In Minnesota, that would be John Erb, Dan Stark or the area wildlife supervisor of the area. And I would hope that pranksters wouldn't waste other people's time with bogus little stunts akin to some of those I've seen in the past.

I'll guarantee you that false reports presented by the media will generate additional false reports.

Q. Has there been an increase in the number of verified cat sightings in Minnesota?

A. Definitely. There are no less than seven verified records of presumed wild mountain lions for Minnesota since 2004, and there's been a pronounced spike in verified records in just the past two years. It will be interesting to see whether the number of verified records declines again after South Dakota trims the Black Hills population. They harvested 47 of their cats this past season.

It's also important to consider that one lion can generate multiple records, and others might not be detected at all.

Q. What role has the Internet and social media played in that increase?

A. It seems that so far, these outlets have primarily exacerbated the flow of bogus info. I'll provide just one example of the hundreds: "18 miles northwest of Greenbush." Thousands of people in Minnesota received trail camera pictures of a mountain lion and two nearly fully grown cubs via email. The cats were reported as having occurred outside of Greenbush, Minn. The photos were actually taken in the Black Hills. Many people read the bogus message and saw the pictures but never heard the full scoop. Misinformation tends to propagate.

Q. Does anyone really know what happens to the cats that have been verified in Minnesota?

A. No; the Bemidji cat (from September 2009) was road-killed, and in 2008, the first record of a presumed wild lion for Wisconsin was shot in Roscoe Village just three months after its presence had been detected in Wisconsin. Other than that, any others seem to have vanished.

No one has shown that a wild lion has actually established a home range in Minnesota or at any other location in the northeastern Midwest. Possibly, some of them eventually head west where they will eventually encounter others of their own kind.

Q. Is it possible Minnesota does, or eventually could have, a breeding population?

A. There's certainly no evidence of a breeding population at this time, and if an incipient population did exist, I think in most regions of the state we'd see convincing evidence that reproduction had occurred before too many years passed. I usually answer this question this way: It might be possible in certain regions of Minnesota, but I doubt I'll see it in my lifetime.

Also, I'd like to be wrong, as seeing sign of a litter of wild lions would certainly cause me to grin from ear to ear. But even then, it would be a long while before one knew whether a population could actually grow and persist.

Female philopatry is a factor that likely plays into the current distribution of mountain lions in the United States. That is, female lions do not generally disperse as far, or as often, as males. In South Dakota, for example, I think roughly 40 percent of the young females remain in the Black Hills, whereas virtually 100 percent of the young males emigrate. And when females do emigrate, they generally do not travel as far. That is the reason there is at least some question as to whether females, at least any significant number of them, will ever disperse, or have ever dispersed, to Minnesota.

Q. What biological or habitat requirements would be necessary for that to happen?

A. Security cover is very important. Wild lions would not likely persist where road densities are high or where the human population is high. One should realize, too, that raising a family requires habitat to meet the needs of the family and other lions using an area. In other words, although one lion passing through an area is possible, that doesn't necessarily mean that area is suitable cover that could sustain a population.

Q. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least, where are we in terms of lion research and what's known about the animals?

A. Across the nation, I'd say we're at 7.5. Closer to home, I'd give Dr. Jonathan Jenks of South Dakota State University very high marks for their research project. Here in Minnesota where we have not yet established or documented that wild reproduction has occurred, I guess we're doing about all we can. I'd like to see a satellite GPS collar on any known wild lion, since that would be of considerable interest to many of the public. For example, where did the animal wind up? That is, after exploring our region, did the lion eventually move westward?

Q. What's the single most important thing people should know about mountain lions?

A. Depends on the person, I guess. I'd suggest that people not live in fear of mountain lions, especially where their numbers are low or where they don't exist at all. But perhaps that is easier said than done. If your personality causes you to fear mountain lions, or you live in lion country, become well acquainted with the safety rules. Adult lions are generally wary and usually avoid confrontation with humans, but young lions learn potential hazards from their mothers or on their own and may not have learned that humans are the deadliest animals on the landscape. In Minnesota, if a lion is sighted, he's likely to be 50 miles away in two weeks' time.

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