The existence of mountain lions in Manitoba is no longer a myth.
For more than 30 years, not a single dead mountain lion -- also known as a cougar or puma -- had been reported or turned over to Manitoba Conservation.
That changed in 2004 when two cougar carcasses were reported to the department.
Since then, the number of verified sightings has increased to at least one a year.
"It's nice to know we have them here in Manitoba," said local wildcat researcher Joanne Hutlet. "They are very elusive, very hard to study. But they're here."
The Winnipegger, a competitive diver and marathon runner, has had an interest in cougars since she was a child growing up in the Baldur and Glenboro areas, south of Spruce Woods Provincial Park in southwestern Manitoba.
She recalls placing ads in the local weekly paper, the Gazette, asking readers, 'Have you seen a cougar?'
"Back 20 years ago, there wasn't much proof that they existed here," Hutlet said. "But I knew that's what I wanted to study."
Fast-forward to the mid 2000s and Hutlet, indeed, focused her studies on the existence of the big cat in the province. Her thesis was, The Cougar in Manitoba.
Non-believers were everywhere.
"I was nicknamed the girl studying the Sasquatch," Hutlet said. "There were strong hints that I should change my thesis."
But there was evidence of cougars' existence here in 2004, about halfway through her studies to obtain a master's degree in natural resources management from the University of Manitoba. Two cougars were found in separate incidents 10 years ago around Duck Mountain Provincial Park and Riding Mountain National Park. One was shot and one was caught in a trap.
Then, in September 2007, retired miner and farmer Guy Dew took photos of a large cougar on land adjacent to his Swan Valley farm, which is on the edge of the Duck Mountains.
At the time, Bill Watkins, a zoologist with Manitoba Conservation, says Dew's shots were the first showing a live cougar in the province.
Four years later, a trapper near Boissevain found the carcass of a large male in a power snare set for coyotes.
Several reports of sightings have come in since, but they haven't received confirmation from Manitoba Conservation -- until Klaus Dittberner's chance meeting with a cougar May 13 on a trail near MacGregor.
-- Jason Bell