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Dokken: Encounters with wildlife can make for some memorable moments

Closer to home, I’ve never encountered anything that rivals a mountain lion, but there definitely have been a few encounters that stand out.

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A black bear sporting an ear tag in its left ear acclimates to its surroundings after being returned to the wild in March 2021 in Beltrami Island State Forest. As wildlife encounters go, bear sightings are generally memorable.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — The topic of memorable wildlife encounters came up a few weeks ago during a virtual meeting of the Northland Outdoors team.

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

While anyone who spends time outdoors inevitably encounters some memorable moments, I didn’t give the subject much more thought until the other day, when Dennis Topp of Baudette, Minnesota, forwarded me images of a cougar that wandered past a trail camera he had set only a quarter-mile from his house. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources verified the image as a confirmed cougar sighting, and I used the photos as an opportunity for an update on the status of the big cats in Minnesota.

Cougar sightings have become more common in Minnesota than they were 20 years ago, but the Department of Natural Resources maintains the state does not have a breeding population of the big cats.

North Dakota has a breeding population of mountain lions, a name used interchangeably with cougars, but the DNR says there is no evidence of a breeding population in Minnesota. Instead, the big cats, which have a reputation for being secretive and traveling long distances, are just passing through when they’re spotted in the state. The number of confirmed sightings in Minnesota varies from one year to the next, and there’s no evidence to suggest they’re becoming more abundant.

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Sturgeon – dozens upon dozens of them – congregated in an obvious act of spawning, the first verified sighting in more than 100 years of lake sturgeon actively spawning in the Red River Basin.

The abundance of trail cameras on the landscape these days likely ups the odds of encountering a wandering cougar, but sightings such as the one Topp shared with me remain rare – at least in Minnesota – and very memorable indeed.

Thinking back on my wildlife encounters, I had the good fortune of seeing polar bears, caribou and beluga whales in 1999 during a trip to Churchill, Manitoba. Polar bears wandered into town all three nights of our stay and were captured and sent to “polar bear jail” before being taken back out on the tundra, where they’d hopefully stay.

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A trip to Alaska in the summer of 2015 served up everything from mountain goats to sea lions and humpback whales, to the point where what seemed awesome the first day or so became almost routine at the end of our weeklong stay.

Closer to home, I’ve never encountered anything that rivals a mountain lion, but there definitely have been a few encounters that stand out.

Black bear sightings would have to top the list.

When I was growing up in northwest Minnesota, bears were a rarity and always a topic of conversation when they occurred.

Bears are relatively common up there now, and seeing one usually doesn’t require much effort.

Last spring, I was walking along a treeline near the edge of our property when I came to an opening in the trees. I looked up, and there was a bear standing maybe 20 yards away. It wasn’t a big one, and we quickly went our separate ways.

That got the ticker pumping a few beats faster.

Another time years ago, back in the days when moose were abundant in northwest Minnesota, a cousin and I were snowmobiling on a trail in a nearby wildlife management area when a moose lumbered out of the woods and trotted down the trail in front of me.

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The final hunt of the season with my daughter, who was the one with a tag for the first time this year, ends with a tom at 12 yards in the decoy.

My mode of snowmobile transport in those days was a single-popper 175cc Polaris Colt, a 10-horse speedster that topped out at about 30 mph, though it was known to reach speeds of nearly 40 mph on a packed trail with a tailwind.

The moose kept trotting, we kept snowmobiling and we hadn’t gone very far when it dawned on me that turning around would probably be the best course of action. If the moose became agitated and turned on us, it could have stomped us into the snow in short order.

And so, we turned our sleds around, which was a bit of a process with thick woods on both sides, and headed back down the trail from whence we came. The moose seemed perfectly fine with not having our company, as well.

That encounter still comes up in conversation between my cousin and me more than 40 years later. Unfortunately, moose have largely disappeared from northwest Minnesota. They’re more common than mountain lions, but far less abundant than bears.

Perhaps the most goosebump-inspiring encounter, at least in recent times, happened one October night three or four years ago, when some friends and I were hanging out by a blazing campfire and solving the world’s problems at the end of the day during our annual “October Trip” grouse hunting excursion.

It was nearly midnight or perhaps even later, and some of the crew had called it a day when a pack of timber wolves started howling to the northwest. Then, as if that wasn’t impressive enough, another pack answered to the northeast.

The packs were a few miles apart, but their call-and-response production went on for several minutes. The sound sent chills down our spines.

In that moment, thanks to a wildlife encounter those of us still awake were fortunate enough to experience, a fine evening got even better.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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