In late January, Dave Larson was hunting coyotes with his two hounds south of Osakis, Minn., when the dogs picked up the scent of a mountain lion. There'd been earlier reports of a cat in the area, and a buddy of Larson's, who also hunts with hounds, had treed the lion earlier in January. Larson's two hounds went about a quarter-mile before they jumped the cat bedded down in some grass, chasing it into a tree 50 yards away.

Mountain lions are protected in Minnesota, but Larson used his cellphone to take several photos and a video of the cat in the tree. "He was only about 20 feet from me where I was standing taking the video," said Larson of Osakis. "He wasn't concerned about me at all."
Larson regrets that he missed getting video of when the cat "bailed out of that tree," heading to a larger tree nearby with the hounds in pursuit. The cat still was in the tree when Larson called off the dogs and turned his hunting attentions elsewhere.
Larson's encounter is the most recent in a handful of documented mountain lion sightings that occur in Minnesota each year.
However, Minnesota doesn't have a breeding population of mountain lions, said Dan Stark, large-carnivore specialist for the Department of Natural Resources. As a result, the state doesn't study mountain lions.
That only adds to the mystery when sightings occur. In every case, the lions that have been confirmed are young males passing through in search of new territory and a mate.Typically, they're gone within days, which makes the sighting near Osakis unusual.
"He'd be pretty easy to find," Larson said. "I'm pretty confident if he's still there, I could tree that thing in a couple of hours."

Same cat?
The assumption is the cat Larson encountered is the same lion that showed up on a nearby trail camera two months earlier.
Steve Loch, an independent biologist from Babbitt, Minn., who closely tracks mountain lion reports, said it's rare for a cat in Minnesota to stay in one place for more than a few days.
"This is the most interesting cat that I've worked with or thought about or considered," he said.
The only other example, Loch said, was a radio-collared male cat that wandered east from South Dakota late in 2004. That cat eventually passed a few miles west of Grand Forks before crossing the Red River and ending up in a remote part of Roseau River Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota. It stayed there from January through mid-March before disappearing off the radar, possibly into Canada.
Loch says deep snow and a nearby deer herd probably were factors in that cat's decision not to move.
Lion populations in South Dakota and western North Dakota have been increasing since the middle to late 1990s, and the cats wandering through Minnesota are thought to be from the Black Hills or the Badlands.
A young male mountain lion killed by a car in September 2009 near Bemidji likely came from western North Dakota, based on genetic tests that matched the DNA of Badlands cats.
Jonathan Jenks, a professor and research biologist at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D., began studying mountain lions in the Black Hills in the late 1990s. At that time, Jenks said, officials from the state's Department of Game, Fish and Parks estimated the population of the elusive animals at 15 to 20 cats.
More recently, estimates have put South Dakota's population as high as 250, Jenks said, and researchers are tracking more than 40 cats with collars in the Black Hills.
"When we started on this research project with my first student in the late '90s, we were told we wouldn't be able to radio-collar any of them because there weren't enough lions in the Black Hills," Jenks said.
Students tagged 12 cats that first year, Jenks said, and researchers have radio-collared more than 300 since. Trained hounds tree the cats for researchers to capture and collar.
"It's been said we know more about the Black Hills lion population than just about any other lion population in North America," he said.
Tracking the radio-collared lions has confirmed the cats travel long distances. A male cat collared about the same time as the lion that wintered in Roseau River area was killed by a train in Oklahoma, Jenks said, a straight-line distance of about 665 miles.
Another South Dakota cat with a GPS collar was killed in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Jenks said. And DNA samples from a lion killed in 2011 in Connecticut showed the cat had originated from the Black Hills, some 1,800 miles away. The same cat had been photographed the previous year on a trail camera in Wisconsin.
Without research projects, encounters with people and trail camera sightings are about the only ways to confirm lion encounters in Minnesota. Loch said Minnesota has had about 10 confirmed trail camera records of mountain lions since 2007, including at least two each fall since 2010.
But without radio-collar data, no one knows where those cats go.
"A cat on the move is impossible to keep up with," said Loch.
That's why Loch said he'd like to collect a DNA sample from the cat recently treed near Osakis.
Given the eastward expansion that's occurred, no one can say whether mountain lions will establish a resident population in Minnesota.
"There are some places I'm absolutely convinced they couldn't make it," Loch said. "We've got road density and people density. But there might be some places that they could."
But few wild creatures generate more interest.
"They're an incredible species," Jenks said. "And for the most part, they just want to get away from people."
-- Mountain lions are monotone in color, ranging from grayish brown to reddish brown except for the black tip on their tail and on the back of their ears. The long tail typically is about a third of their body length. Male mountain lions weigh an average of 135 pounds and measure 6-1/2 feet from their nose to the tip of their tail. Females average 93 pounds and 6 feet.
-- Tracks are similar to those of a wolf or large dog but are more rounded in shape and 3 inches to 3-1/2 inches wide and 3 inches long. Mountain lion tracks don't usually have claw marks. If present, they are narrower than canid claw marks. Mountain lion toe pads are more tear-shaped and small in relation to the size of the heel pad, while canids are more oval and large in relation to the heel pad.
-- Female mountain lions reach maturity at 2 to 3 years and may breed at any time during the year. A female will give birth to one to six cubs after a 90- to 96-day gestation period. Cubs generally disperse at 10 to 26 months.
-- The lions' main prey are large hoofed animals. They also eat rodents, medium-sized mammals and smaller carnivores and occasionally kill livestock.
-- North Dakota and South Dakota have documented breeding populations of mountain lions and have hunting seasons. Mountain lions are protected in Minnesota, where the DNR says no evidence exists of a viable breeding population.
Source: Minnesota DNR