Cougars are here, but
difficult to find, track Mountain lion sightings increase in
Ginger, the resident mountain lion
at Wonders of Wildlife, was confiscated from a
Reynolds County man. If Dickerson Park Zoo's
schedule allows, she could end up in its Missouri
habitat area. Christina
Dicken / News-Leader
Dave Hamilton, a conservation
research biologist in Jefferson City, shows a male
mountain lion struck and killed on U.S. 54 near
Fulton in mid-August. Associated Press File
A mountain lion in captivity at an
Illinois preserve, seen in a 1999 photo from the
Missouri Department of Conservation, shows no
shyness in front of the camera. When Dale and
Sharon Jarvis spotted a big cat near their home
outside of Theodosia, they had a similar
experience. They had time to get their video
camera and tape him, Sharon Jarvis said, because
"he just sat there, and sat there and sat there. I
suppose it was 15 or 20 minutes he was sitting
there. Then he stretched like they do, the tail
out, just like a cat." Associated Press File
If you meet a
mountain lion ...
The Missouri Department of Conservation offers
the following advice on handling close encounters
with mountain lions:
Experts say mountain lions are ambush predators
and avoid fights.
The best way to avoid attack if you encounter a
mountain lion is to appear large and threatening.
Standing tall, raising a shirt or jacket over your
head with your arms, talking firmly in a loud
voice and throwing objects all can help deter an
Don't lean over or turn your back on a
If attacked, fight back. People have stopped
mountain lion attacks by hitting them in the face,
stabbing them with sharp objects and gouging their
WOW's cougar, Ginger, could get home at
Mike Penprase, News-Leader
Ginger, the resident mountain lion at the
Wonders of Wildlife, may get a new home at
Dickerson Park Zoo.
Taking her from a Reynolds County man who
didn't have a license to keep her, the Missouri
Department of Conservation turned the female
mountain lion over to the Wonders of Wildlife for
safekeeping in May 2002.
But Ginger could find a new home once the
mountain lion exhibit at the zoo's Missouri
habitat area is finished.
The plan is for Ginger to go to the zoo, said
Misty Mitchell, WOW's director of life science.
Things are a bit more complicated on the zoo's
side, spokeswoman Melinda Mancuso said Friday.
"At this point, if they still have the mountain
lion when we are ready to open our exhibit, the
cat will come to us," she said. "A lot of that
depends on how construction proceeds."
The current schedule calls for a portion of the
exhibit expansion to be open by mid-2004, she
Several weeks ago, a call came in to
the Conservation Department's southwest district office:
A mountain lion had reportedly been sighted on the
Greene-Christian county line.
But wildlife biologists didn't immediately jump to
attention, especially since the caller had only a
fleeting glimpse of the animal while driving.
"There was no filming, no prints, no sign of a kill,"
said Tim Russell, southwest district wildlife
In recent months, reports of mountain lions — also
called cougars, catamounts, pumas, panthers and
"painters" in the Ozarks — have become more common. And
with recent evidence confirming that the animals rarely
seen in Missouri since the late 1920s have returned to
the state, officials want more substantial evidence
before sending a team to pursue each reported sighting.
It's a switch from just a few years ago, when state
biologists were convinced that people who reported
spotting wild mountain lions were actually seeing big
dogs, bobcats or captive animals. But a collision in
August between a vehicle and a mountain lion on U.S. 54
near Fulton ultimately cemented the idea among wildlife
biologists that the wild cougars have indeed come back
to an ancestral home.
A necropsy performed on the Callaway County lion
revealed it was a juvenile male with no signs of having
been in captivity, said Dave Hamilton, research
biologist with the Conservation Department.
Along with having a squirrel in its stomach, the
105-pound lion had no tartar on its teeth, which would
have been an indication it had been eating in captivity,
Hamilton said. Its elbows also had no calluses, a sign
of resting on concrete for long periods.
DNA samples have been sent to a laboratory to get
conclusive evidence that the animal wasn't a South
American mountain lion, which are often kept as pets, he
"My guess is it came from central Texas, Colorado,
South Dakota, Wyoming," Hamilton said. "Of course, it
could have come from Missouri. We can't rule that out."
But no one is sure how many wild mountain lions are
in the state or how far they've spread. And those
questions likely won't be answered soon because the
Conservation Department isn't planning more involved
research, such as tracking the animals via radio
collars, officials say.
On a chilly New Year's Day two years ago, Dale and
Sharon Jarvis scanned their ice-covered property seven
miles south of Theodosia for deer and spotted what
resembled a large dog. But the animal had a long tail,
pointed ears and a brownish coat.
It was in no hurry, and they had enough time to grab
their video camera.
"He just sat there, and sat there and sat there,"
Sharon Jarvis said of the animal. "I suppose it was 15
or 20 minutes he was sitting there. Then he stretched
like they do, the tail out, just like a cat."
Dale Jarvis said he knows what he saw; during a
vacation in Colorado he held the leash of a pet mountain
lion at a rest stop. Maybe the harsh weather conditions
prompted the big cat to get within an eighth of a mile
of their house, he said.
"I think that's why we saw it," he said. "It was
hungry. Otherwise, we never would have seen it."
The next day, she and her husband found the carcass
of a deer the cat might have killed, Sharon Jarvis said.
But the frozen ground was too hard for the animal to
They contacted a conservation agent, told him what
they saw and gave him a copy of their videotape, Dale
Jarvis said. But little came of the report.
While he's convinced it was a mountain lion, Dale
Jarvis still wonders whether it was a captive cat that
got loose or a wild mountain lion.
They've seen plenty of bobcats, but haven't seen a
mountain lion since that winter's day encounter, the
A river trail
The latest reports of mountain lions in Missouri have
come from north of the Missouri River at a time when
reports of mountain lions in neighboring states to the
north and west are increasing.
States such as Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska have
confirmed sightings of what's considered the biggest cat
in North America, the first since the late 1800s.
Finding mountain lions near the Missouri River makes
sense, Hamilton said. "I think that's the general
consensus among biologists," he said. "When they're
wandering and moving long distances, river corridor
would provide a highway."
John Young, a biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife
Department, has followed reports of mountain lions in
Missouri and is waiting for DNA samples from the
Callaway County lion to include in a DNA study of Texas
He agrees mountain lions might be using river valleys
to ramble far from home ranges. "River corridors are
known travel routes for mountain lions, especially ones
that have decent cover along them," he said. "They
provide easy access for them."
And a mountain lion traveling just over 500 miles
from northeast Texas to southwest Missouri is a
possibility, he said.
"Certainly, animals are probably moving into Oklahoma
from parts of Texas and going on from there," he said.
"It's feasible it's a second or third generation from
Except when mating, mountain lions are solitary
animals, and juvenile lions also tend to move to new
territory, where males and females might encounter each
other and mate, Young said.
There's no firm explanation of why no confirmed
mountain lion reports have come from southwest Missouri
since 1999, although part of the reason might be fewer
river valleys that lions could use for travel, Hamilton
As for mountain lions moving north from Arkansas in a
pattern mimicking black bears', that has yet to be
Mountain lions made headlines when one was
photographed near Little Rock recently, but the Arkansas
Game and Fish Commission's official stance is that
mountain lion sightings can be attributed to people
seeing "feral" cats.
They also say there is no proof Arkansas doesn't have
any Florida panthers — a close relative to the western
mountain lion once found in the state.
"Unless proven otherwise, we haven't found anything
that would lead us to believe in sightings of
free-ranging cats," department spokesman Keith Stephens
The commission also has rejected a U.S. Fish and
Wildlife plan intended to bolster the numbers of Florida
panthers by introducing them to other states, including
Releasing cats in the Oachita and Ozark mountains
would result in public concern, the commission decided.
But the federal agency has indicated it is continuing
to study the possibility of releasing mountain lions on
The way biologists examine mountain lion reports
began changing in the 1990s, when the state had its
first confirmed sighting in decades in 1994 in Carter
Nowadays, the department's Mountain Lion Response
Team is sent to the field only if a lion is killed or if
there is physical evidence ranging from an animal a lion
has killed or even scat, or lion droppings, he said.
The department has a set of guidelines now in place
to help determine whether a mountain lion was a captive
animal or wild, said Hamilton, who is Missouri's
representative on the Eastern Cougar Network, which
ranks mountain lion reports.
Not being able to confirm a mountain lion's
appearance from physical evidence remains a problem in
determining how many are in Missouri, Hamilton said.
"The difficulty is those (sightings) that have no
evidence, simply a sighting. There's no way of verifying
what it is," he said.
The next big question is whether mountain lions
trekking to Missouri from Western states are
reproducing, Hamilton said.
But residents shouldn't be overly concerned if
mountain lion numbers increase. Despite some incidents
nationally of lions attacking people, Hamilton discounts
that possibility as remote, saying there's more chance
of being killed by bee stings or lightning.
Still, to satisfy public curiosity, the department
has included on its Web site advice on how to react when
confronting a mountain lion.
"Be sure the mountain lion sees you as a threat and
not as prey. Keep facing it and do not bend down," the
department recommends. "Stand as tall as possible and
raise your hands or jacket above your head to make
yourself look bigger.
"... If the mountain lion attacks, fight back with
anything at your disposal."
In contrast to states like Texas that allow hunting
mountain lions any time, Missouri lists them as a state
endangered animal, with the last native lion reportedly
shot in the Bootheel in 1927. They cannot be hunted
unless they are pursuing or attacking humans, livestock
or domestic animals.
Lynn Robbins, biology professor at Southwest Missouri
State University, is among those who hope mountain lion
numbers increase in Missouri, and that they eventually
Robbins doesn't agree with the Conservation
Department that all of Missouri's unknown number of
mountain lions are immigrants, or what he said should be
referred to as "dispersals" because they make one-way
Researchers have concluded that mountain lions are
much more adaptable than originally believed, and can
survive on much smaller areas as long as food is
abundant, he said.
Several years ago, Robbins headed a research project
that included interviews with Ozarks residents about
mountain lion sightings. He counts himself fortunate
after seeing what he describes as a trio of the big cats
in Newton County.
"My take is that they have been here in low numbers
ever since they were reported to have been extirpated,"
Robbins said. "It's just that they're so secretive. We
had numerous people writing us and calling us that they
had seen them. Many had experience of seeing them out in
the West, so they were familiar with them."
Talking with those people netted not only reports of
visual sightings, but accounts of hearing what many
people describe as a woman's shrill scream coming from
wooded areas at night.
If there's an ideal habitat for mountain lions, it's
isolated areas of the Mark Twain National Forest where
concealment is easy and deer are plentiful, he said.
Basing a mountain lion's hunting range on information
from Western states might not apply to the Ozarks, he
"An area like here and farther east, you've got
stable deer populations," said Robbins."There's no
reason to move."
An Arkansas colleague doing similar work contends
that it doesn't matter whether Arkansas mountain lions
are captive animals that are roaming free or are wild,
although he doubts any would be considered Florida
Not having a road-killed lion to examine has been
frustrating, but there could be a relatively simple
reason for that, said University of Arkansas Little Rock
biology department chair Gary Heidt.
"If people think they are endangered animals in this
state and they hit one, they're not going to tell
anybody because they think they're subject to a big
fine," he said.
And it's understandable Fish and Game is leery of
allowing mountain lion releases, he said.
"You talk about a nightmare, bringing in what's
classed as an endangered species and then having to
manage that thing," he said.
The lion's future
Though pleased the Missouri Department of
Conservation has a response team, Robbins thinks the
department can do more to study the mountain lion. An
early member of the team, he quit after concluding the
department was cold to the idea of trying to track down
a mountain lion and then put a radio-tracking collar on
it to follow its movements.
"I think it would be just wonderful to have a radio
on him," he said. "At that time, they didn't want to do
that. I fully support the response team, but I didn't
feel it was responsible of me if I couldn't conduct
research with my students."
Wildlife research supervisor Eric Kurzejeski said the
Conservation Department doesn't plan to use such
research techniques in the near future.
And while several states are participating in an
effort to increase the population of the closely related
Florida panther by introducing it to states in its
former range, there are no plans in Missouri to actively
reintroduce the mountain lion, he said.
"I think if you look at our track record, restoration
programs have always had to have public support," he
The mountain lion's return to Missouri might be a
mixed blessing both for the animal and people who either
are enthusiastic about the lion's return, or are
concerned, wildlife biologist Hamilton said.
"I think the habitat ingredients are here; the
question is 5.5 million people and a lot of roads," he
said. "The last two (confirmations) were road kill, so
that gives an indication of the problems they're facing.
"People's attitudes have changed, but I don't know if
Missouri is going to greet mountain lions with open