SHELL LAKE– "You are a danger to the public, Robin, when you drink," Barron County Circuit Judge J. Michael Bitney told Robin Johnson during the defendant's sentencing for his sixth operating while intoxicated (OWI) conviction.
As District Attorney Aaron Marcoux described Johnson during the hearing, he is a productive person when sober, but when he "falls of the rails," he falls hard.
Bitney sentenced Johnson, 40, of Shell Lake on January 4 to three years in prison and three years of extended supervision for driving while drunk on June 5, 2019. It was one more year of prison than Marcoux, Johnson's attorney Joseph Schieffer, and the Department of Corrections had recommended.
A Wisconsin State Patrol trooper had pulled Johnson over in the town of Beaver Brook, but not before Johnson sped away from the trooper and passed another vehicle on a hill at a high speed, then eventually abruptly pulled
over onto the shoulder.
He failed the roadside sobriety tests and said he had had a couple of drinks, though later he amended it to four, at a Spooner bar while en route from Hertel to Rice Lake.
Johnson was convicted of operating while intoxicated (OWI) and placed on probation for two years. It was his seventh OWI charge in September – this time in Burnett County – that broke his otherwise compliant probation and sent him back into court to be sentenced for the sixth OWI.
Johnson's past convictions were in 2000, 2001 (two), 2008, and 2011.
Bitney told him a silver lining is that he never killed anyone while he was drunk behind the wheel, but it is only a matter of time before tragedy will strike.
"This needs to stop," Bitney said.
"You are a good person. You are a capable person," Bitney told Johnson. The judge said Johnson is talented, gifted, intelligent, and he can be a contributing member of his tribe, community, and family.
But only if he maintains his sobriety.
The judge, Marcoux, and Schieffer agreed that Johnson is not a danger to society when he is sober but is a significant one when he drinks. Schieffer said it was complacency with his sobriety that led Johnson back into drinking.
Bitney reminded Johnson that he could be sentenced to 10 years in prison for a sixth OWI, and much life with family and friends would be lost. Parents and grandparents could pass away, and he would not be there.
What made the OWI worse, the judge said, was that Johnson's pattern seems to be "it's off to the races" when he sees the lights in his mirror, which aggravates the drunk driving conditions further.
"That's a deadly combination," Bitney said. "Eventually your luck is going to run out."
Bitney noted that Johnson had other convictions over the years: domestic abuse, disorderly conduct, reckless driving, drugs, assault.
He said it will be up to Johnson to learn how he can deal with the ups and downs of life, the stressors and anxiety. He must do the soul searching and tailor alcohol prevention programs to his needs.
Johnson said he had the past two months to think about what he had and had not done to get where he was.
"I did indulge in alcohol to end up in this position," he said. "But what I didn't do is I failed to ask for help when I'm at a low point, a weak point."
He said that when he is sober, he is very productive, a good father and employee, a good person overall.
But with alcohol, he said, he fails.
"I do realize I am an alcoholic and, you know, I battle a lot with my alcoholism and I try to do my best but it just seems never enough and here I am."
He said he will continue to fight to be the person he wants to be.
Bitney said he has seen many people go through the courts with alcohol problems, and some have gone on to do amazing things, paying forward, even to strangers, "because they've been there."
He said he hopes Johnson's future holds that for him, too.
Bitney passed on some advice a dear friend had once said: If you want to avoid slipping and falling, then stay out of slippery places.
Evidence of another cougar has been found in the region.
On Tuesday, Dec. 29, retired wolf expert Adrian Wydeven, formerly with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and his wife, Sarah Boles, a part-time wolf tracker for the DNR, were called to a private woods south of Cable and west of Hwy. 63 to confirm the presence of cougar tracks.
When Wydeven and Boles arrived at the site they did, indeed, find cougar tracks — round feline impressions 3 1/2 inches long and 3 3/4 inches wide. As the two followed the tracks they noticed the tracks merged with smaller feline tracks they identified as a bobcat.
"We had been tracking a cougar for about six-tenths of a mile at that point and came over this little high ground and were going toward the swamp, and all of a sudden it intersects the tracks of this bobcat,"
bobcat," Wydeven said. "The bobcat tracks look like they're a little bit older than the cougar tracks."
Wydeven said if trackers are not trained to identify a bobcat track, they might assume the smaller track is of a smaller cougar, meaning a mother and a cub.
Wydeven said large carnivores often follow the tracks of other carnivores.
"A wolf will follow a coyote set of tracks for a while, and coyotes follow wolves," he said. "Different carnivores will follow another set of carnivore tracks for a while, but it wasn't like it was tracking it for long distances. I think a lot of these animals are following game trails that are used by other animals and it's just a logical place to walk."
The terrain where the cougar tracks were found — brush islands in swamps and dense balsam groves — is good hunting areas for snowshoe hares and deer.
Wydeven and Boles followed the cougar tracks until they crossed into a neighboring property, and then they backtracked and found a big white pine tree, where they found scat at the base. In fact, they discovered what appeared to be scat of different ages, telling them the cougar has used that site more than once.
"So cougars in their normal range are known to have these latrine sites where they defecate on a regular basis," he said. "It's kind of a territorial marking system for them. And so it appeared that he had been there and had marked the spot previously."
Scat samples were gathered for genetic marking of species, sex, and the individual cougar.
Wydeven said he learned from the DNR that a cougar had been tracked December 14 outside Washburn in Bayfield County and some genetic material was found at that time. It can be used to determine if the Cable cougar is the same animal.
It is interesting that roughly 10 years earlier Wydeven was in the same general area tracking another cougar that eventually found its way all the way to Connecticut before it was hit and killed by a vehicle there in 2011. He said it is a good bet the 2020 cougar, like the 2010 cougar, is a male originally from the Black Hills in South Dakota that was kicked out by a bigger, older male cougar that did not want younger males in his territory.
In 2010, Wydeven tracked the cougar on February 15 and Boles tracked it on February 29. She discovered it had been very close to the Birkie Trail during that year's Birkebeiner events
"So those 7,000 skiers were close to where that cougar had been traveling on that day," Wydeven said.
Asked if that area of Bayfield County is a good corridor for a wandering male cougar in search of a mate, he said, "It may just be the combination of good habitat and coincidence. There's some good deer wintering areas near the Namekagon River in the area where this animal was. I think they typically do follow river systems with a presence of a healthy deer population."
Those young male cougars in South Dakota wandering east in search of a mate do not know there are no female cougars in Wisconsin, at least as far as anyone knows. But Wydeven said there are reports of at least one female cougar, in both Minnesota and Missouri.
More cougars in the state?
For years Wydeven and other DNR trackers scoured Wisconsin, especially during winter, looking for cougar tracks while they tracked other animals such as wolves. But after literally hiking thousands of miles they found no tracks, no real confirmation of cougars in Wisconsin.
Then in March 2009, bear hunters west of Spooner treed a large male cougar, offering confirmation that the large carnivores indeed were in the state.
Since 2009 there have been many more confirmations of cougars in Wisconsin, including some recent sightings nearby.
In August this year there was a report of a cougar sighting in the town of Hayward, and in 2019 a cougar was caught on a game camera killing a deer near the White River in Bayfield County. Also, a deer carcass killed by a cougar was found in southern Washburn County.
Wydeven said he does not know if there are more occurrences of cougars in the state or if there is just more documentation because of trail cameras and the proliferation of smartphones with digital cameras. But Wydeven said he has seen this kind of reporting of cougars before an established population of cougars took hold.
In the 1970s, Wydeven did his master's study of elk in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and back then there was no established population of cougars. But there were reports of cougars arriving from the West, the Rocky Mountain states, just as there are reports now in Wisconsin of cougars arriving from the Black Hills.
By the 2000s, cougars had established a population in South Dakota, including breeding pairs, and today there is even a hunting season on the species.
Because of the random appearance of cougars in Wisconsin, there is no management plan for the species, but that might change if a female does eventually end up here and breeding pairs develop an established population.
Wydeven is chair of the Timber Wolf Alliance Council and a member of Wisconsin Green Fire, an organization providing advice to decision makers regarding environmental issues.
The DNR asks those who have sighted a cougar or found tracks or other evidence to report that information to Wisconsin Large Mammal Observation at dnr. wi.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/MammalObsForm. asp.
A 13th Washburn County resident has passed away from a confirmed case of COVID-19.
That person was the second in two days, bringing the total of deaths related to COVID-19 in Washburn County to 13.
"We extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of this individual. Our thoughts are with them," the Washburn County Health Department said.
As of Tuesday, Jan. 5, the county had registered another 51 confirmed cases since December 28, eight days, for a total of 1,051, with 978 recovered and 60 still active. Another 70 cases were listed as "probable" – nine of those still active – and two people's deaths were listed as probably due to COVID-19.
The county's listing of active cases may be higher than what the state Department of Health Services lists in its daily updates because the state department counts recovered cases based on time of onset, while the county department continues to see some cases because of hospitalization or because the disease has kept its hold beyond the 10 days.
Burnett County confirmed on Monday the loss of two more of its residents due to COVID-19 complications. Twentyone of the county's residents have died from COVID-19 or its complications since the pandemic began.
The county has had 1,092 positive cases as of Tuesday, with 926 recovered and 130 being monitored.
The Washburn County Health Department has been getting questions about when the vaccine will be available to the broader public, and the department posted a graphic on its Facebook page that shows the following timeline for receiving the vaccination:
• Phase 1, December 2020 through spring 2021
– Group 1A, health care workers and long-term care staff and residents
– Group 1B, essential workers (undefined currently but may include public health and safety, transportation, communications, financial, food and agriculture, information technology, and other critical infrastructure services.
– Group 1C, Residents over 65 and individuals with underlying health conditions. Includes those who are considered at a higher risk for severe illness based on their age or health history.
• Phase 2, spring through summer – Remainder of Phase 1. – Critical populations and general populations. "An announcement will be made when vaccine supplies reach a point that allows partners to begin taking appointments and providing COVID-19 vaccinations to community members."
• Phase 3, summer and beyond
– Remainder of Phases 1 and 2
– Critical populations and general populations. "Vaccine distribution will be widespread and will be incorporated into preventative care."
This timeline may change if there are new recommendations, new vaccines approved, or more vaccine available sooner.
The county health department said it would update the public via Facebook, county website, and news releases to local papers and radio stations when additional groups are able to be vaccinated.
"Nursing homes/assisted living facilities are in group 1A and are in the process of getting and administering vaccine," the health department said. "We do not yet have a timeline for when vaccination of the next priority groups will begin. We will make several announcements as soon as we have new information."