TOMAHAWK, Wis. – James Halfpenny fired up a projector and the image of a large cat with a stocky, round head, long, black-tipped tail and tawny, well-muscled flanks looked out at the audience.
Though merely a digital image, the animal commanded attention.
Perhaps it was the size. Or posture. Or beauty. Or wildness. Or instinctual human fear of large predators. Or, in Wisconsin, rarity.
Name your reason, the class members were rapt.
“Hang on to your seats,” Halfpenny said. “There is this hot topic all across the nation, known as the cougar.”
Halfpenny then embarked on a dissertation of the history, biology and management of North America’s most widely distributed wild cat.
The presentation was part of a cougar ecology and track training workshop at Treehaven, an education center run by the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Forty people showed up in a winter storm for the weekend class. Most are from Wisconsin, intent on becoming part of the state’s volunteer carnivore tracking program, but others came from as far as Oregon.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has run wolf ecology workshops since 1995, part of what Halfpenny described as “the world’s largest volunteer animal tracking effort.”
Wolves remain the primary focus of the volunteer winter tracking effort. But recent confirmed sightings of another big carnivore in the state prompted an additional focus to the training.
“People are fascinated with cougars,” Halfpenny said. “As long as we’ve got cougars, I’ve got a job.”
The cougar is the cat of many names: puma, mountain lion, panther, catamount and mishibijn (Ojibwa). According to one translation, the Cherokee called the cougar “lord of the forest.”
The animals once roamed throughout Wisconsin, but wild cougars are thought to have disappeared from the state in about 1910.
Reports of cougar sightings in Wisconsin filtered in often through the years. Most, however, could not be verified by authorities.
That all changed in 2008, when a cougar was seen and confirmed near Milton in southern Wisconsin.
Three additional confirmed sightings have been made since. The animals are thought to be young males dispersing from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
To increase scientific understanding of cougars, Halfpenny offers workshops around the country. He holds a doctorate from the University of Colorado in arctic and alpine research and worked for over a decade on the large cougar population near Boulder.
Now widely considered one of America’s pre-eminent animal trackers, he works as an instructor, author and consultant based in Gardiner, Mont.
Halfpenny said he started tracking as an 8-year-old growing up in Nebraska and Wyoming. His parents baby-sat him by “sending him outside.”
By the time he was 16, he had hunters paying him to find game they’d shot. He now shares his lifetime of tracking prowess with students
Once people get interested in tracking, Halfpenny said they are never the same and want to stop at every piece of animal sign.
“The more you track, the better you learn your biology,” Halfpenny said. “The better you learn your biology, the better you’ll track.”
Halfpenny set three goals for the class. The students should: Recognize what signs and information might be important to identify an animal; learn to collect quality evidence; and obtain peer review.
Halfpenny described tracking as a slow, deliberate process.
A tracking axiom says, “They can lay ‘em down faster than a tracker can pick ‘em up.”
“It’s critical to never destroy the scene and to not jump to conclusions,” Halfpenny said, as he showed the class how to stand to the side of a string of tracks.
To provide students a crash course, Halfpenny covered tables with an inch of sand and then covered it with dozens of animal tracks.
The species include badger, coyote, bobcat, lynx, fisher, red fox, black bear, marten, domestic dog, wolf and, yes, cougar.
The prints help students learn which clues are most obvious from the various species. Are the front feet larger than the hind? Do the claws show?
The students then mixed plaster and made casts of the impressions. Such technique is often important in the field to produce evidence.
Halfpenny also showed the class how to make a mold of a track in the snow.
The cougar has the greatest distribution of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere — except humans.
The big cats are found from northern Canada to the southern tip of Chile and Argentina.
Deer are the most important food to cougars, but the big cat’s diet also includes smaller animals like beavers, porcupines and hares.
According to research, the frequency of kills range from one deer every three days for a female cougar with large cubs to one deer every 16 days for a solitary cougar.
Cougars are predators, but they will also scavenge food such as road-killed deer.
Deer have a nickname in much of mountain lion range: “cougar candy.”
Since Wisconsin has a large deer population, Halfpenny said it isn’t surprising to have the big cats showing up.
The question is: Will they set up a breeding population and stay?
Cougars are secretive and don’t like humans, Halfpenny said.
“If we can give them will to think about things, they don’t want to be seen,” Halfpenny said.
Cougars rarely attack humans. During the study near Boulder, Colo., in the 1980s, an area with a high human population and lots of cougars, Halfpenny recorded only two cougar attacks on humans.