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Published September 7, 2003

Cougars are here, but difficult to find, track
Mountain lion sightings increase in Missouri

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.
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.
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 Photo
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
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 Photo
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 attack.

Don't lean over or turn your back on a threatening cougar.

If attacked, fight back. People have stopped mountain lion attacks by hitting them in the face, stabbing them with sharp objects and gouging their eyes.

WOW's cougar, Ginger, could get home at zoo

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 said.

By Mike Penprase
News-Leader Staff

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 supervisor.

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 said.

"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.

Cougar spotting

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 leave tracks.

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 Jarvises said.

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 lions.

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 Texas."

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 said.

As for mountain lions moving north from Arkansas in a pattern mimicking black bears', that has yet to be answered.

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 said.

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 Arkansas.

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 federal land.

Stricter standards

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 County.

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."

Still endangered

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 reproduce.

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 trips.

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 said.

"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 panthers.

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 said.

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 arms."

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