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Points North: Not always the apex predator

Points North: Not always the apex predator
April 1, 2024 Interlochen Public Radio

By Daniel Wanschura, Interlochen Public Radio

Points North is a biweekly podcast about the land, water and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. This episode was shared here with permission from Interlochen Public Radio.


On November 11, 2023, Ben Karasch is up in his treestand, waiting for a deer. He’s been bowhunting since he was a kid. And for years, he’s been doing it in Buffalo County, Wisconsin – a place known for huge, trophy bucks. But today, nothing. Then after a few hours, he finally sees something moving. Ben instinctively reaches for his bow, thinking it’s a deer. But what comes into view isn’t a big buck, it’s a cougar. And it’s staring right at Ben.

The huge, sandy-colored cat creeps closer and closer. Ben is shocked. He’s never seen a mountain lion before, and he’s not exactly sure how to react. So, he waves his arms and yells at the animal, trying to scare it off.

“Get out of here.”

But the cougar keeps stalking him, tail twitching as 40 yards becomes 20.

As the cat creeps closer, Ben begins to fear for his life. At 10 yards out, he feels like he only has one option left. He pulls back his arrow, steadies his gaze, and lets go.

CREDITS:
Host / Producer: Dan Wanschura, with help from David Zeug
Editor: Morgan Springer
Additional Editing: Ellie Katz, Michael Livingston
Special Thanks: Deneen SmithBrady CarlsonPaul DambergMark Rasmussen, Lukas Weirsema, and Bekah Wineman.
Music: The FurtheringPintleThe PlatteCruxisToothless SlopeBeyond the Cranberry House by Blue Dot Sessions
Sound: Inside car ambience by Kyster, Autumn Winds through Hickory by kvgarlic, walking through the forest by wniebelski, Soft walking through very dry leaves and twigs by Alex_hears_things, all via Freesound

A Wisconsin DNR warden holds the cougar shot in self-defense by deer hunter Ben Karasch in November 2023. (credit: Wisconsin DNR)

TRANSCRIPT:
DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: This is Points North. A podcast about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.

One day, David Zeug is in his car driving, listening to the radio. Then a local newscast comes on.

WISCONSIN PUBLIC RADIO: A bowhunter killed a cougar in Buffalo County last weekend, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

DAVID ZEUG: I was– I was just stunned. I remember I was just thinking, Did I really, did I hear that right?

WPR: The agency says the hunter was in a tree stand when he encountered the animal and felt threatened.

WANSCHURA: David is a retired conservation warden and now an outdoor writer. And he has a hunch this story is going to blow up. So, he does some digging.

He finds the name of the hunter, tracks down a phone number, and leaves him a message.

ZEUG: I gave him my name … and my background as a conservation warden … I said, ‘Hey, you want to talk? You let me know.’

WANSCHURA: He isn’t the only one. All sorts of reporters are trying to get a hold of this hunter including me.

A cougar in Wisconsin? Shot in self-defense?

Sounds like something that would happen out West – not the Great Lakes region. So, I call the hunter multiple times, even send him a letter. But I never hear back.

Unlike me though, David Zeug does.

ZEUG: And he says, ‘I’m the guy that shot the cougar.’

WANSCHURA: The hunter’s name is Ben Karasch. He’s from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and is familiar with David’s outdoor writing.

ZEUG: And he said he wanted to tell his story once. And he wanted to tell it to me. And I said that was great. Let’s do it. And he told me his story.

WANSCHURA: Cougars are extremely rare and protected across most of the Great Lakes region. So, when one is killed, it comes with a lot of scrutiny.

Did the hunter really fear for his life?

Today on Points North – the first cougar killed in Wisconsin in 115 years. That’s right after this.

(sponsor message)

WANSCHURA: Buffalo County, Wisconsin is a deer hunter’s paradise. The county butts up to the Mississippi River on the west, and is a perfect combination of high forested bluffs and farm fields.

And it’s home to a lot of really big whitetail deer. Ben Karasch has been bowhunting this area for years and knows it well.

But on this day in November, he hasn’t spotted any trophy bucks. In fact, he hasn’t seen a single deer – very unusual.

(sound of wind blowing through trees)

Ben is stationed on the edge of a long and narrow field, perched up in a tree stand. After a few hours of waiting, Ben finally sees something move. It’s off to his right, about 40 yards away. Again, outdoor writer David Zeug.

ZEUG: And he thought, ‘Oh boy, there’s a deer finally.’ 

WANSCHURA: Ben tells David he instinctually grabs his bow, which is hanging in the tree.

ZEUG: He turned around, and it wasn’t far away, it was in fairly heavy cover. And he sees this cat-like head looking at him. 

WANSCHURA: At first, Ben thinks it’s a really big bobcat. There’s a lot of them in Buffalo County.

ZEUG: But as time went on, the cat began literally creeping, creeping up to him, staying low to the ground … tail twitching back and forth as it creeped forward. That was when he realized that he was looking at a cougar.

WANSCHURA: A cougar. Also known as a mountain lion or catamount.

ZEUG: I remember he said, ‘I had never seen a cougar – never thought I’d ever see one. I didn’t have any idea how you’re supposed to react to a cougar.’ He was just shocked. 

WANSCHURA: The huge sandy-colored cat creeps closer. It stays low to the ground, stalking from bush to bush. All the while, never taking his eyes off Ben up in that tree.

ZEUG: He says, ‘I was fearful. I saw this animal looking at me. I saw this animal coming closer and closer to me.’ 

The view from Ben Karasch’s tree stand in Buffalo County, Wisconsin. A DNR warden looks on. (credit: Wisconsin DNR)

WANSCHURA: Ben is sitting in his tree stand about 10 feet up in the air. And he’s strapped into a safety harness, so he won’t fall. But that also means he can’t really move much. The big cat keeps moving closer and closer – about 20 yards away now.

ZEUG: He was aware of all cats and their speed and their ability to jump. But this is all going through Ben’s mind in a relatively short time.

WANSCHURA: Cougars are incredible jumpers. They can jump over 15 feet high and can cover a whopping 40 feet in a single bound.

ZEUG: So, he stood up in his tree stand, rotated his body to the right and yelled, ‘Get out of here’ to the cougar, and waved his hands, you know, ‘Get out of here! Get out of here!’

WANSCHURA: Ben says he continues to yell at the cat and wave his arms.

At one point, he clangs the metal carabiner that connects to his safety harness on his tree stand – something that would normally startle most animals off. But not this cougar.

ZEUG: It was looking at him the entire time, as it closed the distance to 10 yards.

WANSCHURA: Now, Ben Karasch has a decision to make. This cat could be up the tree and on him in a couple of seconds. He doesn’t have a gun or a knife, just his bow. And bows aren’t meant for close combat.

Plus, it’s nearly impossible to shoot an arrow straight down when you’re up in a treestand and Ben knows this. If the cat moves any closer, he might not have any shot at all.

He tells David he’s scared – scared out of his mind. And he thinks about his family.

ZEUG: It’s not reacting like I would think a wild animal would. It’s not running away. It appears to be stalking me … And that was when he decided, ‘I’m going to have to shoot this animal. I’m fearful of it.’ 

WANSCHURA: David Zeug says when you’re hunting and you pull back the arrow, you can develop tunnel vision as you lock in on the target. You try to control your breathing and then let your instincts kick in.

ZEUG: You look through the sight, you anchor on the corner of your mouth as you look through the sight, and that’s what he did. And the animal’s looking right at him– only 10 yards away. He put the pin on the cat’s chest and released the arrow.

An arrow similar to the one Ben Karasch shot a cougar with when it was stalking him on November 11, 2023. (credit: Wisconsin DNR)

WANSCHURA: Ben hits the cougar. It spins around and bounds off through the woods and out of sight.

That’s when Ben says he starts shaking. He can’t believe what just happened and how fast it all went down. He quickly unhooks his safety harness and climbs down the tree.

He doesn’t look for the cougar, he just wants to get out of there. Later, he calls the Wisconsin DNR and reports what happened.

Cougars are native to the Great Lakes region. But by the early 1900s, they had basically been wiped out. Sightings have been rising in recent years, but they’re still very uncommon here.

So, they’re a protected species, and intentionally killing one could be a crime with some hefty penalties.

(sound of walking through the woods)

The next morning, Ben meets up with a DNR biologist and a couple of wardens, and they go looking for the cat. They track a sparse blood trail until 45 minutes later, they find the cougar – dead.

It’s about 150 yards from where it was shot, according to the DNR. A young, 128-pound male. It’s the first known cougar killed in Wisconsin since 1908.

The huge paw of the cougar shot in Buffalo County, Wisconsin on November 11, 2023. (credit: Wisconsin DNR)

And now, the wardens have to figure out if Ben Karasch is telling the truth. Did he really shoot the cat in self-defense, or did he poach it for a once-in-a-lifetime trophy kill?

The wardens start asking Ben questions. Does his story of what happened line up with the evidence?

ZEUG: Wardens are always trained in interviews. And, one of the tactics is facial expressions and inflections of voice, changing little details on the story – a lot of little things go towards whether or not you believe someone in these things.

WANSCHURA: As they’re talking, the wardens start to get the sense that Ben is telling the truth.

Another big clue in an investigation like this is where the animal was shot. Was it shot in the side? That would mean the cougar wasn’t facing Ben when he shot it. And that could debunk his entire argument that the cat was stalking him.

The DNR officials look at the angle of the arrow placement and determine, yes, the cougar was facing Ben when it was shot.

ZEUG: Clearly, it was in the upper right front of the shoulder … In fact, the arrow remained … in the cat– cut through the heart and the lungs area and stayed in the animal.

Later, the DNR shares its findings with the Buffalo County district attorney. And the D.A. decides Ben Karasch’s story is legit.

ZEUG: ‘There’s no charges here,’ which is right.

WANSCHURA: Ben is cleared of any wrongdoing. And the DNR takes possession of the cat. But that doesn’t mean everyone else believes his story.

ZEUG: He said he’s taking a lot of hits, a lot of sarcastic and disturbing comments on social media. In fact, he said, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna quit looking at it. It’s not doing me any good.’

WANSCHURA: ‘I call bs!!,’ wrote one commenter on Facebook.

‘He should be fined big time!’ wrote another. ‘If you have time to shoot it with a bow!!! Give me a f**ing break!!’

Another guy replied, ‘I’m willing to bet he was hoping to get a cougar mount, much more than he was ‘fearing’ for his safety.’

But Ben says he and the cougar were both in the wrong place at the wrong time.

ZEUG: He had trouble sleeping for a few nights. It was– it was traumatic. There’s no getting around it. It was traumatic. I could tell that from his voice.

One thing I remember him saying several times is, ‘I wish this had never happened. I wish I hadn’t been there. I wish the cougar hadn’t been there. But it did. And I did what I felt I had to do.’ 

WANSCHURA: Ben Karasch says he’s been bow hunting since he was a kid. He tells David he and has no plans to quit now – even after what happened.

But he does have a warning for others who frequent the great outdoors –

He says, ‘Be prepared and fully aware of your surroundings when in the woods and understand that you’re not always the apex predator!’


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Points North: Olympic Dream Takes a U.P. Village

Points North: The Legend of Heike’s Tombs


Featured image: On November 11, 2023 Wisconsin bowhunter Ben Karasch found himself being stalked by a cougar like this one. (credit: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks)

2 Comments

  1. J Grummett 2 weeks ago

    What an experience for you Ben. I believe you and know that you really felt threatened. In Texas they tell you to carry a stick, wave your arms, yell to scare them off, yours didn’t. As the saying goes “if you haven’t walked in my shoes how can you judge”. I also lived in British Columbia, CAN and cougars are known to stalk grown people and children. I also experienced seeing a young cougar in Northern Arizonia in a State Park and it showed no fear of man at 20 yds. Nice to read this event is not going to deter you from enjoying nature and the wilderness.

  2. Jenni M 1 week ago

    I live/frequent areas along the Mississippi, including Buffalo County. It is well known around here that, even though rare, cougars are not strangers and for them, we are just another prey. We also get bear around here. (and some claim Sasquatch.🤣😂 yeah, okay.)

    Smart hikers, birders, other non-hunters are well advise to consider carrying to protect yourself. Usually a creature can be shoo-ed away, but as Ben now knows, that is not always the case.
    I believe you Ben. Glad you came out ofo it safely. Sorry such a glorious creature as the cougar lost the encounter instead of leaving. Life can suck, badly.

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