When 39-year-old Wisconsin bowhunter Ben Karasch climbed into his tree stand on Nov. 11, he was hoping to spot one of the legendary bucks that Buffalo County is known for. Instead, he saw an adult cougar stalking him. As the lion crept closer to his stand and got within 15 yards of him, Karasch realized he was in a kill-or-be-killed moment. He chose to shoot.
After self-reporting the incident, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources investigated it and decided not to bring any charges against him. Although cougars are protected in the state, officials concluded that Karasch shot the animal in self-defense.
“I’d climbed into my ladder stand that afternoon and by early evening I hadn’t seen a deer,” says Karasch, who had a buck decoy out along the edge of a narrow field. “At about 3:45 I looked to my right and about 40-yards away saw movement that I assumed was a deer. Then I saw the cat-like face staring at me and thought it was a big bobcat, they’re not uncommon here. Then I saw the huge body and long tail and realized it was a cougar.
“I could see it was sneaking up on me, staring right at me with its tail swishing back and forth,” he continues. “It would crouch and hide, then start creeping toward me again, always with his eyes on me. There never was a minute in the whole episode when he wasn’t coming toward me. I think he saw the deer decoy first, then saw me moving in the stand and started concentrating on me instead.”
Karasch says a lot of thoughts ran through his head as he watched the cougar come closer.
“I was strapped into my harness, so my movement was limited, and since he was to my right, I had to turn to face him. I waved my hands and yelled at him to get out of here, but he kept coming. The carabiner on my safety harness even banged against the tree stand when I turned, but that didn’t bother him either, he just kept sneaking closer.”
That was when Karasch realized he could be in serious trouble if the cat lunged up the tree.
“I’ve hunted deer since I was 12 years old and most of my shots have been at about 20 yards. This cougar was half that distance away,” he says. “All these thoughts are running through my mind, I felt extremely scared and vulnerable at that moment with the cat still staring at me. With how close the cougar was and his lack of fear even though I tried to scare him away, I felt like the only option I had was to shoot.”
Karasch drew back and released. His arrow hit the cougar in the shoulder at what was later measured to be 13 yards.
“I watched him run away and then climbed out of the stand and got out of the area. The next thing I did was call the DNR hotline and turn my self in. That was the right thing to do.”
The next morning, Karesch met with two game wardens and a biologist near the stand. They followed the blood trail and found the cougar lying dead roughly 120 yards from his deer stand.
“I was relieved, but not surprised, when the wardens and the District Attorney decided charges wouldn’t be appropriate,” Karesch says. “I’d give anything for this to have not happened. I guess you could say we were both in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
DNR biologist Mark Rasmussen says it’s likely that trail camera pictures taken in the days before the event were of the same animal. It’s the first cougar to be shot in Wisconsin in 115 years.
“It was a two-year-old male that weighted 128 pounds,” Rasmussen explains. “It’s also likely it came from the Dakotas like other cougar sightings in Wisconsin have found. We’ll do a full necropsy of the animal and use it as an educational tool.”
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Rasmussen says there have been 23 verified cougar sightings in Wisconsin this year. But with so many trail cameras out, he thinks most of these sightings are of the same few individuals.
Conservation Warden supervisor Lt. Tyler Strelow tells Outdoor Life that Karasch did the right thing by self-reporting this incident. Strelow added that he hopes it doesn’t give other hunters an excuse to shoot at cougars and other predators such as bears and wolves.
“There’s a lot of bears and wolves in Wisconsin hunters will encounter during the deer gun season, but the only time they can be shot is in protection of livestock and for human safety.”