Known either as mountain lions or cougars, these big cats are rarely seen in Minnesota - but they are spotted from time to time. While confirmed sightings only happen a couple times a year around the Land of 10,000 Lakes, there have been a handful of reports on the North Shore in June of 2022.

Grand Marais area media outlet WTIP received some community reports of possible cougar sightings in Cook County, including in the area of Pike Lake Road, which starts about 5 miles west of Grand Marais and travels toward Pike Lake, about 11 miles west of Grand Marais.

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While neither of these sightings have been officially confirmed by the Minnesota DNR, there does seem to be a bit of an upward trend in confirmed sightings of cougars across Minnesota.

Since 2004, there have been 59 confirmed cougar sightings in Minnesota. Most years, those confirmed sightings have ranged from one to five per year, though those numbers have increased in recent years. 2018 saw 7 confirmed sightings and 2020 saw 16 confirmed sightings across the state.

To be clear, the difference between a sighting (or reported sighting) and a confirmed sighting is verifiable evidence the DNR can use to confirm that it was indeed a cougar. People sometimes mistake other animals for cougars, including bobcats, house cats, coyotes, wolves. fishers, and lighter-colored dogs.

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How do you know if you actually saw a cougar? The Minnesota DNR says first and foremost to know that these animals are fairly large. Adult males average about 150 pounds, and can sometimes be as large as 200 pounds. Adult females tend to be smaller, averaging 90-110 pounds. As a whole, these cats can be 4-6 feet long, and tend to have a tan body except for dark face markings and a darker tail, which tends to be nearly as long as the animal's body.

Portrait of a cougar in the snow, Winter scene in the woods

The Minnesota DNR says they use a variety of things to identify a confirmed sighting. Among those methods are photos from a trail camera or other camera, dead animals, definitive tracks, and genetically-confirmed scat or other sample.

Sightings have been reported all around the state, including several in the Northland. According to a Minnesota DNR recordkeeping site for confirmed sightings, many of them were spotted via trail/hunting camera or security camera.

Confirmed Northeastern Minnesota mountain lion sightings by county

  • Itasca County: 7 sightings (all in 2020)
  • St. Louis County: 6 sightings (2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2020)*
  • Lake County: 2 sightings (2010, 2020)
  • Cook County: 1 sightings (2016)
  • Carlton County: None
  • Aitkin County: None
  • Pine County: None

*All of the St. Louis County confirmed sightings were in the northern half of the county, except the 2007 report, which was south of Hibbing. 

So, while we don't know for sure if the two sightings west of Grand Marais were actually cougars or not, they are definitely around from time to time. The DNR says that it is possible some of these sightings might be the same animal in different places. They also say that they suspect most of these sightings are cougars that have roamed into the region from the Black Hills and Badlands areas of the Dakotas. In instances the DNR has been able to verify, they say many sightings have been young males, which are more likely to roam.

Human encounters with mountain lions are extremely rare, even in areas where they are much more prevalent. If you find yourself in the same area as one, the DNR recommends you look directly at the animal, raise your arms to look larger, and speak loudly and firmly do deter it.

Additionally, whether you see one in the wild or capture one on a trail/security camera, the Minnesota DNR would like to hear from you. They ask that you report the sighting as possible to the nearest area wildlife office or conservation officer. They ask that you include the date and time of the sighting, along with the location of the sighting and description of what you saw.

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