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Hunter’s remote camera captures picture of mountain lion

Posted on Saturday, August 23, 2003

Don Scott of Little Rock often spots deer, coyotes, raccoons, foxes, bobcats and buzzards while in the woods of Arkansas but had never spied a big cat.

At least not until two weeks ago, when a camera triggered by a heat sensor Scott had set up near the Winona Wildlife Management Area snapped a shot of a lithe, golden mountain lion creeping through the forest. "I’ve been hunting all my life and I’m 65," Scott said. "This is the first time I’ve ever come across a mountain lion."

And that’s no surprise, considering the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission says the state’s wild mountain lion population was wiped out by the 1920s after pioneers slaughtered them and decimated the white-tailed deer the cats relied on for food.

In 2001, the Game and Fish Commission took mountain lions off the state’s endangered species list and officially adopted the policy that there are no wild mountain lions in Arkansas. It’s the only state to have done so. "We determined all of our native panthers were gone from the state," Game and Fish biologist Blake Sasse said. "We haven’t come across any in Arkansas that we can’t trace back to a pet animal that’s escaped or intentionally been released."

More than 100 mountain lions — also called cougars, pumas or Florida panthers — live in captivity in Arkansas. While the state doesn’t have a law regulating ownership of exotic animals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires owners to hold a livestock permit. "In the last five years we know of at least eight mountain lions that escaped or were released, but all of those were either killed or recaptured," Sasse said.

But is it possible that wild mountain lions are re-establishing themselves in Arkansas forests? "I wouldn’t rule anything out," Sasse said. "There’s a known mountain lion popula- tion in southern Texas, and they can travel long distances."

Plenty of people suspect the big cats may very well be moving back to the Natural State.

People living near the Hot Springs Country Club reported seeing or hearing cougars this winter and spring, and some blamed the cats for attacks on pet dogs.

And just this month, a Missouri motorist hit a 105-pound male mountain lion on a Jefferson City highway about 150 miles north of the Arkansas-Missouri border. The animals can weigh from 80 to 230 pounds and range from 5 to 8 feet in length.

Many biologists suspect wild mountain lions may be migrating eastward from South Dakota, Colorado and Texas. Male mountain lions have been known to travel hundreds of miles to stake out their own territory.

But even if wild mountain lions are here, Sasse said there probably aren’t many of them. "If we had a large number we’d see them showing up hit by cars on the road or we’d have people shooting them."

Scott’s camera caught the image of a mountain lion on private land near the Winona Wildlife Management Area west of Little Rock. He uses the camera to track deer in preparation for hunting season. The picture of the mountain lion was taken sometime between Aug. 6 and Aug. 13. The camera also captured the images of several deer during that time period.

Dr. Gary Heidt, a wildlife biologist and chairman of the biology department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said he’s not sure whether mountain lions spotted in the state are animals that escaped captivity or their offspring, or if they’re immigrants from Western states. "Until we finally get one and can run some DNA tests on it we won’t know for sure," he said.

Regardless of where they came from, it’s important to study these animals, Heidt said. "If they’re captive animals or if they’re wild animals, if they’re in the state they’re part of our fauna."

While some would welcome mountain lions back to their home habitat, others have no interest in re-establishing the big cats on Arkansas soil.

Arkansas officials told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last fall they want no part of a plan to expand the Florida panther population into wild areas of the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. Arkansas was the only southeastern state being considered for the relocation program that refused to join.

Public reaction is one reason. Wildlife experts said they would expect lots of opposition to a cougar relocation program for fear of danger to livestock, pets and people. Arkansans already complain about bears and alligators, and state officials say they would expect more nuisance calls if the mountain lion population increased.

However, mountain lions may be on their way to Arkansas whether state officials like it or not. But until hard evidence is found, experts shy away from declaring Arkansas home to wild mountain lions.

Scott will lead Heidt and biologists from the Game and Fish Commission to the spot where the picture was taken sometime in the next few days to look for evidence of a big cat.

Asked about the image captured by his camera, Scott said Friday he was surprised as anyone. "I didn’t know what to think," he said. "I really didn’t expect to get a picture of one there."


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