The Cougar Conclusion
In the Great Lakes States, cougars are an animal caught between myth and migration.
Mountain lions have been slowly but steadily moving east, and confirmed sightings are on the rise. But the number verified by wildlife officials pales in comparison to the number of reports that flood in. Some of those are legit. Most are misidentifications. Others are straight up hoaxes.
This story explores the world of wildcat sightings, and visits the Driftless Area, where black cougars are a part of local lore. Biologists have never documented a black mountain — they don’t officially exist. So what creature might be roaming the hills of southwest Wisconsin?
Producer: Patrick Shea
Host: Dan Wanschura
Editor: Morgan Springer
Additional Editing: Dan Wanschura, Ed Ronco
Music: Blue Dot Sessions, Doctor Turtle
DAN WANSCHURA, HOST: The small town of Hillsboro sits at the bottom of a valley, surrounded by steep wooded hills. It’s probably not what comes to mind when you think of southern Wisconsin. These woods are scattered with boulders, cliffs, and caves.
Growing up in Hillsboro, this terrain was Steve Stanek’s playground.
STEVE STANEK: Back when I was a kid, there was no such thing as ‘no trespassing.’ You could go anywhere you wanted to – out in the country, or whatever. We’d explore the woods and the hills. And there’s a large bluff that towers above Hillsboro, I guess that’d be on its eastern side. And it didn’t really have a name, I don’t think it ever has, but we called it Spook Bluff.
WANSCHURA: One day, when Steve was 13, he and some friends were exploring the woods on top of Spook Bluff.
STANEK: And we came down off one side of it and stopped at a farm to get a drink of water. And this enormous roar came out of the woods.
WANSCHURA: Not a growl – not a bark, hiss, or screech, Steve says. A roar.
STANEK: Yeah, I mean, it was loud. It was throaty, you know, deep.
(jaguar roar sound effect)
WANSCHURA: Unsure what he had just heard, Steve hurried home – a little shook up. Fast forward 20 years, and he’s working as a reporter at a local newspaper.
STANEK: One of our type setters, she was from between Viroqua and Westby. And she had seen a large tan cougar on her property. I don’t remember the specifics anymore, but that was the first one. And then, you know, when you hear of one, you become aware of another and another and another.
WANSCHURA: Steve says once he asked around, the local sightings started flooding in and haven’t stopped since. He’s been on the cougar beat for over 30 years now.
STANEK: I’ve published over the years probably about 200 sightings. And I would say over 50% of them were black.
WANSCHURA: The thing is, a black cougar has never been documented by wildlife biologists anywhere.
STANEK: There’s no such thing as a black cougar. They don’t exist. But are they here? Yes.
WANSCHURA: This is Points North: A show about the land, water and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.
There are things we see and hear, and then there are the things that science can confirm. Well, this is a story about the tug-of-war between them and how that tension might make it harder to find the truth.
Today, Reporter Patrick Shea takes us to Hillsboro, Wisconsin, where black wildcats are a part of local lore. We’ll join Steve in his search for a creature that’s not supposed to exist.
PATRICK SHEA, BYLINE: ‘Hidden gem’ is a term so overused that it’s sort of lost its meaning. But I can’t think of a better way to describe the Driftless Area.
During the last ice age, a chunk of land about the size of West Virginia was missed by the glaciers that leveled the rest of the Midwest. So instead of the flat farmland you’d expect, there are rocky bluffs and huge hills. As a flatlander, I’d call them borderline mountains.
That’s why Steve Stanek thinks it’s a perfect place for wildcats.
STANEK: There’s some pretty good sized bluffs around here. Like along the river bottoms there’s a lot of ledges, there’s a lot of marsh in this area. And so there’s plenty of places for these things to build dens and to hide. To me there’s no mystery about this at all. I think they’re year round residents here, and have always been. I think there’s tons of evidence here.
SHEA: Steve wants to show me that evidence. First stop: Sue Wallace, who says she saw a black cougar right in her driveway a couple years ago.
So we go for a drive. It’s the middle of January, but it’s been raining on and off. The melting snow turns to fog that seems to get tangled in the treetops. It’s the kind of day you’d expect to see something mysterious.
Steve tells me Sue’s a little nervous about being recorded. That’s natural. But she agreed, probably because Steve is here. Everywhere we go, Steve gets a warm reception. People are glad he’s reporting on these sightings, because they’re looking for an explanation.
A lot of folks say they’ve seen these big black cats. And as we drive down a backroad winding through the hills, I peer into the fog and I see one too.
SHEA: Hey Steve, could you describe to me what we’re looking at on the barn there?
STANEK: Well, in my opinion it’s a black jaguar.
SHEA: We’re pulled over for a closer look at a wooden cutout of a huge black cat, displayed along the side of an old white barn, a la Bigfoot.
SHEA: That’s pretty cool, I didn’t expect to see that. It seems like it’s a cultural symbol around here.
STANEK: It shows you how there’s the notoriety of this area. Especially this valley. There’s been so many sightings here.
SHEA: We turn onto a dirt driveway that runs up the middle of a ravine, with wooded slopes rising up from both sides of the two-track.
STANEK: This is Sue Wallace. This is Adam Shea, right?
SHEA: Patrick Shea. Close.
SHEA: Sue has lived in Hillsboro her whole life. And she’s lived at this beautiful spot west of town for eight years, along with her husband, kids, cats, dogs and some donkeys. Sue says a few months ago, her husband noticed the donkeys getting really riled up about something in the woods. And she has a guess at what it was. Because one November morning, before sunrise, Sue saw something she’ll never forget.
SUE WALLACE: The truck was parked up there in between the two sheds. And then I had just backed it up down on the driveway and come down here, and then it just walked right in front of my headlights.
SHEA: She says a huge black cat slipped silently down the driveway, didn’t even glance at her, and disappeared into the darkness.
WALLACE: His tail just, you know, it swooped like this and it was a long tail, kind of a long body. Decently sized.
(sound of dog barking)
SHEA: The dogs are getting riled up just hearing about it.
WALLACE: I mean, the dog we had in the house, like I said, was 120 pounds and I thought for a quick second it might have been him, but then you see the tail on that lion. It was scary. Yep. I ended up sitting in the truck for about 10 minutes before I got out to come in the house. But yeah, it was pretty scary. Kind of cool though, too.
SHEA: Steve tells me Sue is just one of hundreds of eyewitnesses near Hillsboro. At a local library, we head over to computers to look at some video evidence. It was recorded on a local woman’s cellphone just a few miles from here, and it shows a cat strolling along the roadside.
STANEK: Now look at this thing. It stares at her. Look how big it is compared to the shoulder of the road.
SHEA: The cat pauses, glances quickly at the camera, then slips into the tall grass. To me, it doesn’t look that big. And though it’s a grainy video, it seems like a regular tabby cat. But Steve doesn’t think so.
STANEK: But look at that tail.
SHEA: Yeah, that is a long tail. But it looks to me like it has some stripes on it doesn’t it?
STANEK: It does, and that’s what’s really odd about it. And it’s also – It had green eyes and had long whiskers. And it stared at her just for a moment.
SHEA: There’s much more Steve wants to show me. We head to the basement, where they keep archived newspapers, and he pulls out a series of articles from his 30 years of reporting on cougar sightings.
STANEK: Ok, which one is this? I wonder if this is part one.
(montage of Stanek reading from his newspaper articles)
“8 P.M. on the last day of May, 1993, while doing chores on their farm…”
“‘About 40 yards away I saw this big, black cat,’ he reported. ‘The creature was huge…”
“John compared the size of the lion to a large dog and said it was stone black…”
“I stepped out of the barn and here was this beautiful black, glistening animal,’ Joanne revealed…”
“Johnson dashed into his garage to grab his cell phone for photographic proof. ‘By the time I got back out, it was gone,’ he said. ‘I could hear it bounding away through the woods to the southeast.’”
SHEA: Now remember, scientists have never documented a black mountain lion. So as Steve published sighting after sighting, he wondered what kind of cats these really were. He thought back to when he was 13, and heard that roar from the woods near Spook Bluff.
STANEK: Yeah I mean, it was loud. It was throaty, you know, deep. I could describe it exactly because the next time I heard it was my folks took us to the circus in Madison at the Coliseum. And it was an African lion– it was the same roar.
SHEA: Mountain lions – AKA pumas, cougars, or catamounts – they don’t roar. They usually don’t make much sound at all, but when they do it’s a sort of screech.
(sound of cougar screeching)
In fact, there’s only one wildcat native to the western hemisphere that roars at all.
STANEK: And that’s a jaguar. And a jaguar would explain a lot.
SHEA: Ok, quick taxonomy break. Jaguars are in the same family as cougars, but a different genus: Panthera. And experts say they can have a melanistic phase – meaning the jet black fur that people are describing near Hillsboro.
Steve believes jaguars and cougars started mating, and have hybridized in the Driftless Area. And even though the closest known jaguar population is in Mexico, Steve doesn't need something to officially exist to know it’s there.
STANEK: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term cryptozoology. I’m familiar with a lot of that stuff. It’s the study of possibly unknown or out of place animals.
SHEA: Or as one dictionary puts it – “cryptozoology: the study of creatures, such as the Loch Ness Monster, whose existence has not been scientifically proven.”
STANEK: Ok, I don’t know if there’s such a thing as Sasquatch or not. But the one I give the most credence to are sea serpents.
SHEA: Steve says he also had a big flying saucer phase in his younger years, and that his whole jaguar beat comes from that life-long fascination with the unknown or unacknowledged. But in the Midwest, wildcats sort of bridge the gap between “crypto” and actual zoology.
There was a time when “mountain lion” wasn’t really a fitting name for North America’s most iconic wildcat. Cougars once lived all over the continent – not just in the mountains out West. But like so many other large predators, they were hunted aggressively starting in the 1800s, and eradicated from most of the country. There hasn’t been a breeding population in the Great Lakes region since the early 1900s, according to wildlife officials.
But, cougars are making a comeback. Slowly but surely, they’re coming down from the mountains and moving east again. There’s a breeding population back in the Dakotas and Nebraska after being gone for a century.
And even the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has confirmed 15 cougar sightings over the past year. Six of those were in the Driftless Area – not too far from Hillsboro. All of them tan, by the way.
The department says those were all male cougars that walked more than 800 miles from South Dakota.
Cougars are very territorial – especially males – and they’ll travel huge distances in search of a mate. The DNR says they won’t find one here. But how are the cougars supposed to know that?
Now, you probably wouldn’t know if you're seeing a male or female cougar at first glance. Researchers find that out later, with DNA samples from scat or deer carcasses. But you’d think you’d be able to tell what color it is.
SHEA: I guess it was dark; are you sure it wasn’t a tan lion?
WALLACE: Oh no. It was, it was the black one. I mean he walked right in front of my headlights of the truck. I could definitely see what it was.
SHEA: So I guess if you’ve heard from other people that they’re here and they’re seen in this area a lot, why do you think the state hasn’t acknowledged that they’re around?
WALLACE Yeah, I don’t – I guess I don’t have an answer for that, but there’s been many people that have spotted ‘em.
SHEA: Sue Wallace might not have an answer. But Steve does.
STANEK: The only thing that makes a mystery out of these animals being here is the DNR. I believe they’ve live-collared the black ones, along with the tan ones, and released them with radio transmitters.
SHEA: And then why wouldn’t they want the public to know that they’re here?
STANEK: It’s because they don’t want to reserve timberland. Because if this is confirmed that it was an endangered resource, they would have to set land aside.
SHEA: Randy Johnson is a large carnivore specialist with the Wisconsin DNR. He says he’s familiar with this theory.
RANDY JOHNSON: I mean, I don’t know where exactly that stems from. I think it’s probably a bigger issue of mistrust of government and conspiracy, that type of thing. But what I can say is obviously there’s no cover up underway. We work really hard, in fact, to share this information.
SHEA: The DNR has a website dedicated to cougar sightings. There are photos, a map of where the sightings were, a timeline of the DNR’s response, and a place to file your own report.
JOHNSON: So there’s really no cover up when we have a web page dedicated to sharing information on them.
SHEA: Now, when it comes to the black cougars, Randy was careful not to rule it out entirely.
JOHNSON: I think scientifically speaking, there’s no reason to think it’s not possible. However, it’s never been documented. It’s never been documented in hunting records, it’s never been documented through photographs. There’s no evidence of ever having a black phase mountain lion. However, like I said, I think it is possible because there’s several species of cats that have a black phase. And so, again, never say never, right?
SHEA: While Hillsboro seems to be a hotspot for alleged black cougar sightings, they’re not limited to just Wisconsin.
NEWSCLIP: A large black cat in Copemish. But what kind of animal is it? The sighting was on Saturday at Twisted Trails Offroad Park. 9&10’s Meredith St. Henry explains what the DNR is doing…
SHEA: Last summer, someone got a photograph of a black feline creature in northern Michigan. And it went viral, fast.
MEREDITH ST. HENRY: If you do encounter this animal, the DNR warns: do not run.
STEVE GRIFFITH: You want to act as big as you can, you know? Your full height, wave your arms, yell at them…
SHEA: That’s the Michigan DNR’s Steve Griffith speaking to 9&10 News before the department investigated the sighting.
But officials went to the location, and upon further review, said “no cause for alarm.”
NEWSCLIP: We have an update on this black cat that was seen in Copemish a couple weeks ago. The DNR went out with the photographer who captured the photos of the black cat. For perspective, they reenacted the pictures, placing an item where the cat was spotted. Now they believe the cat is 20-30 inches long. With what they gathered, they do believe it’s a housecat.
SHEA: So despite all that hype, there’s still no hard evidence of a black cougar anywhere. And in Michigan, just like Wisconsin, there’s been no evidence of a breeding population of even the verified tan cougars since the early 1900s.
But that doesn’t mean people stopped seeing them here, either.
BRIAN ROELL: You know, my mom says she saw one, my uncle claims he saw one. But, you know, we just never had any solid evidence.
SHEA: That’s Brian Roell, a lifelong Michigander who’s now a wildlife biologist, and part of the DNR’s cougar team.
ROELL: Any sighting that comes in – or any report with evidence that comes in – that whole team reviews it. And in order for us to call it a confirmed sighting, we have to have a unanimous decision.
SHEA: Since the cougar team’s first year in 2008, the number of confirmed sightings has been trending up. And that doesn't necessarily mean there are more cougars; just more sightings.
ROELL: I know one thing that has really probably increased our sighting rate is the availability and the use of trail cameras. They are just everywhere out in the woods. Geez, now they’ve got ‘em where you can, they send pictures to your cell phone.
SHEA: When the cougar team gets a picture that seems promising, they follow up in the field. Most of the team members have traveled to New Mexico and other western states to get trained in tracking these cats. They studied paw prints, scat and the physical characteristics that separate cougars from animals often mistaken for them.
ROELL: I mean there are – unfortunately, there a lot of domestic cats that get submitted as mountain lions.
SHEA: Yeah, yeah. I mean one person, like, showed me a video. I’m not an expert and I took one look and it was like, ‘that’s a house cat.’ It’s light tan with tabby stripes, and it’s walking along the roadside –
ROELL: – Oh yeah we’ve had a calico even one time. I was like, ‘all right now come– you know, they do not come in calico.’
SHEA: Yeah, yeah.
ROELL: And by and large, most of those are people that honestly, truly believe they saw a cougar.
SHEA: There are two different kinds of knowing when it comes to these wildcat sightings. There are eyewitness accounts, of which there’s no shortage. And then there's the much smaller pool of sightings confirmed by scientists with DNA proof or an unmistakable set of tracks. Different people value these kinds of knowing differently.
But Brian says it’s important for the experts to hear folks out. The cougar team tries to be as transparent as possible in their interactions with eyewitnesses. But there’s another kind of report that’s muddying the water.
ROELL: So, it’s one of the weird things that with all our other wildlife sightings and stuff, we don’t get people doing hoaxes. But with mountain lions, we do. Submitting pictures from other states, we’ve had mounted cats placed out in the woods before. I know Wisconsin has had the same scenario. So, it’s kind of strange.
SHEA: Do you have any incidents of when someone did send in a hoax that sticks out to you as sort of – because to me it’s bizarre –
ROELL: There is, there is one that was done– it was on the Seney stretch. It was a woman, so she reported a cougar, and had a picture of it; she took it from the car. She had a young daughter in her car with her. And her young daughter collaborated the story as well. Yet, what we found out was that the picture was actually shot in Louisiana and was flipped just using photoshop or whatever. They just inverted the picture and turned the cougar the other way. It just shocked me that she, one, went to that effort, but then actually involved her young child in the hoax.
That’s one that really stuck out in my mind. But we’ve had a handful of others. People making their own tracks with their thumb – seen that one. A lot of cougars from other states. So, we’ll actually google cougar pictures, you know, ‘cougar next to road’ and just do a global search. And then all of a sudden you’re like, hey, that’s the same picture.
SHEA: Brian says he’s not sure why someone would do this. And neither am I. Sometimes people can be mysterious, too.
But as far as the misidentified sightings, I can see how that might happen. Except maybe the calico.
Over the past few weeks working on this story, I’ve become pretty obsessed with mountain lions. If something large and feline darted across the road in front of my headlights, I could see myself coming to the cougar conclusion. Seriously. And so many people do. Brian says his team reviews around 250 sightings per year, but have only ever confirmed 89 – ever.
I came into this with a lighthearted story in mind. And it is, for the most part. But this deluge of false reports that biologists have to sift through – that takes time. And time is a limited resource. In fact, some of Brian’s bosses don’t think it’s worth it.
ROELL: We’re getting pressure not to confirm mountain lions to the extent that we currently do. Later actually in February, we’re having a meeting with the cougar team and with some folks from Lansing to say, ‘is this worth our effort to continue to go through this level of detail?’ In my mind, the answer is yes. But I may get overruled on that.
SHEA: The less trust there is between the experts studying these cats and the folks reporting sightings, the harder it is to keep track of the cougar’s expanding range. Brian says it's best when eyewitnesses and scientists work together. Because he says a time could come in the not-so-distant future when they could be tracking the true return of cougars to the Midwest.
ROELL: I mean we certainly have the habitat to sustain a few mountain lions. I don’t think we’re ever going to have a really robust population just because they have super large territories. But I think it certainly is within the realm of possibilities.
SHEA: With a creature as elusive as a mountain lion, it’s never easy to definitively say where they are or where they’re going. For now, they live somewhere in this foggy land between myth and migration.