Mountain lions are clawing their way back in the Midwest, according to new research. While sightings haven’t been confirmed in the far corner of Southwest Missouri, there have been sightings as close as Springfield and Tulsa, Okla.
Once more common throughout the Midwest and the Ozarks, mountain lions were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The big cats, also called cougars, panthers or pumas, are following natural dispersal instincts, according to a recent article in The Journal of Wildlife Management. It reported 178 mountain lion confirmations in the Midwest and as far south as Texas between 1990 and 2008. Confirmed sightings of mountain lions in the region were sporadic before 1990.
“We (now) know there are a heck of a lot more cougars running around the Midwest than in 1990,” said Clay Nielsen, a Southern Illinois University wildlife ecologist who co-authored the report and heads the nonprofit Cougar Network’s scientific research. “We’ve got an interesting and compelling picture to talk about now.”
The Missouri Department of Conservation logged 14 mountain lion sightings in 2011 and three so far this year.
Rex Martensen is field program supervisor for the Conservation Department and a member of the state’s Mountain Lion Response Team. He said there are several factors contributing to increased numbers of mountain lions in Missouri.
“The habitat in their traditional ranges are becoming more populated,” Martensen said. “The Black Hills of South Dakota is full. The male mountain lions have to leave, seek out territory. Just the dispersal of mountain lions from the Western states is a big reason they’re here.”
He said the ability to detect mountain lions also has increased with affordable, motion-activated trail cameras. There also is better DNA sampling.
“A couple we confirmed strictly with hair on a fence,” he said.
Male mountain lions have a range of hundreds of miles, so it’s difficult to know if some sightings are the same cat.
“Some of these trail cam pictures I’m quite certain are repeats,” Martensen said, noting that the cats usually don’t have anything that would distinguish one from another. “They all look the same. It could be we’re picking up the same cat more than once.”
Wayne Henson, a county commissioner in Reynolds County in southeastern Missouri, trapped a 122-pound male mountain lion in January in a live trap he had set in the Mark Twain National Forest. Henson took the live mountain lion to a Conservation Department agent in Centerville. The animal was sedated, examined, weighed and measured before being released in the Current River Conservation Area. Jeff Berringer, a resource scientist with the Conservation Department, estimated the animal to be about 2 years old.
There was a second confirmed mountain lion sighting in Reynolds County in January and another one in 2011. Before that, the most recent sighting in the county was in 1996, when a conservation agent caught video of a mountain lion with a deer carcass. Another hot spot for mountain lion sightings has been neighboring Shannon County. There were three confirmed sightings there in 2011.
There have been confirmed mountain lion sightings in Platte, Clay, Ray, Livingston and Grundy counties, outside of Kansas City, and a confirmed sighting last year in St. Louis County.
Martensen said there haven’t been any confirmed sightings of mountain lions in the Joplin area or in more rugged Barry and McDonald counties. He said the department receives frequent calls about mountain lion sightings, but more than 90 percent of them turn out to be misidentified bobcats, dogs or other animals.
The closest confirmed sighting to Joplin was in January 1997 in Christian County, when a property owner captured one on video. The animal’s behavior suggested it had once been in captivity.
Martensen said there hasn’t been any documented mountain lion reproduction in Missouri. All of the confirmed sightings have been of young males passing through, seeking a mate and territory. He also said there has not been any livestock damage that can be attributed to mountain lion attacks.
A confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Kansas in 2007 was the first in that state since 1904, said Matt Peek, research biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Since then, there have been six more confirmed sightings, and two more likely ones. He said most were confirmed with trail camera photos, but one animal was shot and killed.
Three of the confirmed sightings were on the state’s northern border with Nebraska, in Republic, Nemaha and Washington counties. There also were sightings in Atchison County, north of Topeka and Lawrence; Trego County, in northwest Kansas; and Barber County, on the southern border with Oklahoma.
There were 12 confirmed mountain lion sightings in Oklahoma between 2004 and 2011, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Five of the sightings were in 2011.
A female mountain lion was captured in Tulsa in 2011. A DNA analysis linked it to cats found in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A young male mountain lion was struck by a motorist and killed in November 2011 on Oklahoma Highway 81 at Minco, in central Oklahoma.
As the Tulsa case illustrates, mountain lions sometimes stray into areas populated by humans, but the risk to humans isn’t thought to be great. Peek, in Kansas, said mountain lions regularly show up in big cities in Colorado, including Denver and Boulder.
Martensen said mountain lions are capable of killing people, but they tend to avoid human contact.
“Typically, they don’t want that kind of exposure,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Not a concern
Sami Jo Freeman, communications director for the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, said mountain lions are not a high-priority concern for its members. “Cattlemen are aware of the wildlife in their areas,” she said.