Wisconsin cougar sighting is second in area

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Jun 28, 2002

Cougar sighting near Romance second in area

By BOB LAMB, LaCrosse Tribune Outdoors editor

Debra Jiracek's first trout fishing trip is one she will remember for a long, long time. She came within 50 feet of a cougar.

Jiracek and her husband of 31 years, Larry, live on French Island and normally fish together for panfish. Saturday, they drove to the South Fork of the Bad Axe River in Vernon County looking for trout.

"We were about six or seven miles from this teeny town of Romance," Debra said. "When we got out of the car and started walking to the river, I commented to Larry that someone must have a humongous dog by the size of the tracks in the dirt."

The couple moseyed to the river and began fishing. The bugs were bad, at least for Debra. She returned to their car at about 11:30 a.m. After about 15 minutes, she got out to see if Larry was coming.

She didn't see Larry. But, she did see an animal running up and down a grassy hillside, and it was getting closer. It was a cougar.

Debra jumped back into the car, rolled up the windows and started the engine.

"Five minutes later, the cougar came out 50 feet in front of me, slowly crossed the road, then walked up the road and then up a hill," Debra said.

She frantically honked the horn to alert her husband.

"I'm 5-foot-4, and that cougar was as long as me," Debra said.

Dave Matheys, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologist in Viroqua, believes Debra saw a cougar. Her description was detailed. And he had another reason.

"Two months earlier, there was another sighting of a cougar about six miles from where this woman saw this one," Matheys said. "The fellow who saw it said it was on the Crawford and Vernon County line in the Rush Creek area."

Matheys added, "This guy got a great look at it. He's spent considerable time in Montana and knows what cou-gars look like. He's credible."

Although Matheys said the man never saw the cougar again, Debra said she heard that other people have seen it but never reported it until she did Tuesday.

Matheys isn't sure whether the cougar is wild or a pet turned loose by its owner. People can have a pet cougar without a DNR permit, but just like cats and dogs, some people abandon them in the country, he said.

However, a cougar is dangerous, whether tame or wild, and the only way to differentiate is by the teeth, claws and pelt, he said, adding tame or zoo animals also have a tattoo.

"My best advice if you see one is to try and remove yourself from the presence of the animal," he said. "First, and foremost, don't run.

"It's just like a bear. Maintain visual contact, and try to remove yourself from the situation at hand," Matheys said. "This woman did everything just right. She stayed in the car and alerted her husband."

Whitetaile deer are the primary prey of cougars, although they will eat small mammals including squirrels, porcupines and rabbits.

"Fawns at this time of year would be vulnerable for sure, but a full-grown deer is no problem for a cougar either," Matheys said. "Cougars hunt by the ambush technique. They sit along a deer trail or edge of a woods and wait."

As for Debra, she would like to return to the area and check out the cougar tracks one more time, but only from the safety of a vehicle.

"Oh, no. I'll never go fishing there again," she said. "Never."

Bob Lamb can be reached at (608) 791-8228, or at blamb@lacrossetribune.com
 
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