Every night at bedtime, my wife, Carol, reads a chapter from a book to the boys to help them settle in and get ready to go to sleep. Right now, she is working her way through Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
While Wilder is commonly thought of as a Minnesota native, she was actually born in Wisconsin, and spent several years of her childhood here. This book details their lives in the forested area east of Pepin, near the Mississippi River.
One night, Carol came downstairs and asked “did Wisconsin ever have panthers?” I had to tell her honestly that I wasn’t sure, and asked why she was wondering. She had just read a passage from the book where a horse was attacked by a panther, and it sounded like quite a story.
Those familiar with Wilder’s writings know that she wrote her books later in life, many years after the events had occurred. They were her best recollections of events as they happened, but as with any story told from memory across decades, there is always potential for errors and exaggerations. This story was even from before she was born, one of Grandpa’s stories. Still, the question was intriguing. Would Wisconsin have had panthers in the mid to late 1800s? Would the population have been robust enough for the author’s grandparent to have a horse attacked?
It was very easy research to perform. In fact, Wisconsin did have its own documented subspecies of panther, the Wisconsin Puma, or Felis concolor schorgeri. The Wisconsin Puma was among the largest of the documented North American cougar subspecies, attaining 7.5 to 8.5 feet total length from nose to tail tip. According to Hartley Jackson’s Mammals of Wisconsin, the puma was probably not rare in the pioneer days.
In fact, I counted more than two dozen cited reliable records of cougars in Wisconsin from the 1600s through the early 1900s. By the time Jackson’s book was published in 1961, the Wisconsin Puma was considered extirpated (killed off). The cougar records pointed to these large cats as staying in heavily wooded areas, following large river courses like the Mississippi and its tributaries on the west and the Fox River on the east.
So it is entirely possible that Wilder’s grandfather’s horse was attacked by a cougar. I read the account; it actually fits well with how a cougar would hunt. While wolves would run in on the ground and go for the neck, the cougar would lie in wait either on the ground or in a tree and ambush by pouncing on the animal’s back. Grandpa supposedly tracked the animal down and shot it, but I can’t say with certainty that it turned up as one of the actual Wisconsin cougar records tabulated by researchers through the centuries.
Cougar observations and photos are on the rise in Wisconsin. We have not had a documented reproducing cougar population in Wisconsin since we began running our winter track survey, which is one of the largest of its kind in the country.
The animals we now have are not likely to be the Wisconsin Puma subspecies; I would surmise that they have expanded east from the Dakotas through river courses in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The great cutover early in the last century probably reduced forested habitat for these animals, but sound forest management has enhanced wooded habitat in the Northwoods and across much of the state. Further, we have a far higher deer population now (especially in the last 50 years) than we historically did.
To me, with forest and deer management progressing as they are, increased presence of cougars seems like an eventuality. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will be working on a network of trail cameras to document our wildlife species; maybe cougars will become more evident as a result of that research.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.