The Wild Side: Rare animal sightings
Our crazy spring has triggered the movement of many kinds of resident and migratory wildlife. I’ve had reports of people seeing bears, wolves, deer, moose and even cougars in the last week. Retired biologist Ron Eckstein told me he always thought he would end up verifying a cougar sighting in Oneida County, but he never managed to do so despite his best efforts.
I have received maybe six cougar reports in the nine months I have worked here. I have personally checked most of them, but was unable to find anything. This does not mean there are not any cougars; it only means we have been unable to document their presence in scientific fashion. I never tell people what they did or did not see; however, since I was not with the person, I need to rely on the evidence. I can’t be everywhere at once, so you can help if you think you have an observation worth reporting to the DNR.
What is a worthwhile report? The DNR seeks observations of rare mammals, specifically gray wolf, cougar, Canada lynx, moose and American marten. You can fill out the form on the internet by going to the WDNR homepage at dnr.wi.gov, and in the search box type the words rare mammal observation. This will take you to an online reporting page, dnr.wi.gov/org/land/er/forms/rare_mammal.asp. If you don’t use the internet, you can contact the DNR Service Center near you for a paper form, or you can call (715) 762-1363. The form asks you several questions. You will need some location information, a physical description of the animal, and it will ask if you took a photo.
Sightings of animals are the most common report, but if we don’t get an accurate report of the location, or a photo of the sighting, it is difficult for the local biologist to verify. If you go out in the woods, try to take a camera with you. The camera-phone has helped greatly, as has the digital photo revolution for regular cameras and motion-sensing trail cameras. If you see one of the animals listed above, take a photo of the animal if possible. Take a photo of the track or droppings with some kind of size reference next to it. I have used a pen, a business card, or a multi-tool laid on the ground nearby. If you have cooperative conditions, like snow or mud, try to take a photo not only of one track, but looking down the track line. The animal’s foot placement, or gait, can tell us a lot. If you have what you feel is a clear footprint, protect it if at all possible. Place a coffee can, bucket, or other container upside down over it until you can take a photo or contact DNR staff.
Accurate location, date, and time information is also important. We may need to check the location, and having a familiar landmark is very helpful. A road intersection, rural fire number of nearest driveway, or road sign are good examples. A GPS location works great, if you can provide it. Give us a phone number or email if you want to help us further investigate. The completed report goes to Endangered Resources, and the local biologist is informed by email. Last week I had a good moose report from along Hwy. 8 east of Rhinelander. I was able to contact the person, get a location, verify the photo and document the observation. She also sent us photos.
Biological samples, such as droppings, hair samples, other body parts, or remains of prey species can provide valuable information. If you call with details about a dead animal, I may be able to tell you something about what killed it. If you hear back from the DNR requesting you collect one of these samples, gather them in airproof containers and avoid any skin contact (to reduce contamination). We can test animal hair to determine source animal and possibly genetic origins, depending on the circumstances.
Finally, the DNR has a Cougar Sightings webpage, dnr.wi.gov/org/land/er/mammals/cougar/. You will find information about animal life history, identification, sightings, other animals mistaken for cougars, hoaxes and more.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.