MEDICINE LODGE - The long-standing debate about the presence of wild mountain lions in Kansas appears to be over.
For the first time in more than 100 years, state wildlife officials think they have confirmation of such an animal.
Tracy Galvin, a state Department of Wildlife and Parks game warden, took possession Monday of a mountain lion pelt shot west of Medicine Lodge in November.
A Barber County resident said he shot the catwhile cutting wood on his property.
Galvin said the man saw the mountain lion nearby, walked to his truck, grabbed a rifle and shot it.
Charges are pending since it's illegal to shoot a mountain lion in Kansas "unless it's a threat to life or property," Galvin said.
Galvin started investigating local rumors of the cat killing about three weeks ago.
The landowner admitted to the shooting and arranged to have the pelt returned from a Texas taxidermist, Galvin said.
He told Galvin he had previously seen big cats in the area.
Matt Peek, a furbearer biologist for Wildlife and Parks, described the event as substantial.
While it's believed the cat was wild, DNA testing will be done to see if it came from wild or domestic stock.
Biologists say there's no need for Kansans to fear for their safety. The cats are known to be reclusive and contact with humans is rare.
Reports of big cats in Kansas have been coming since the last one was killed in the western part of the state in 1904.
While reported sightings have numbered in the thousands, Peek said proof has been nonexistent.
He and a number of biologists have followed leads but haven't found such solid evidence as tracks, droppings, a carcass or hair.
For about 15 years, Bob Wilson of Garden City has scoured the western half of Kansas placing infrared cameras in areas where big cats have been reported, using road-kill deer for bait.
He said after "countless" camera placements, "I got a number of very interesting bobcat shots, tons of coyotes and deer, but as for mountain lions... zero."
Kansas has come close a few times, like trail camera pictures of out-of-focus tan animals and piles of feces originally identified as mountain lion, only to have the lab testing come into question.
Last summer, an Audubon of Kansas Web site posted what it claimed was proof, though trained biologists who looked at the fuzzy photos and plaster casts of tracks said neither were of a lion.
Several mountain lions captured or killed proved to be released or escaped captive animals.
All around us
Neighboring states have plenty of proof of wild lions. Peek said there's a healthy population in a rugged part of southeast Colorado within 80 miles of the Kansas border.
Studies have shown that male mountain lions, like the one killed in Barber County, routinely range that far to establish a territory.
Nebraska has about 50 confirmations, with most coming since 2004.
Their cats have been traced to a growing population in South Dakota's Black Hills.
Missouri has about 10 confirmations, including a road kill within a few miles of Kansas.
Among others, in 2004 Oklahoma authorities found a lion hit by a train about 40 miles south of the Kansas state line. It was wearing a tracking collar from South Dakota.
"We've never said we didn't have any because of the likelihood a few have been through the state," Peek said. "This is just the first one that happened to get killed that we're aware of so we can verify it."
Had the shooter known the law, Kansas might still be without a confirmation.
"When I told him it was against the law to shoot one, his eyes really bugged out," Galvin said. "I really don't think he knew it was illegal."
Because he's been "super-cooperative," Galvin said, he doesn't plan to press felony charges of taking an illegally killed animal across state lines.
Penalties for conviction of shooting a protected species and possessing a protected species each carry fines up to $500 and up to one year in jail.
The Barber County kill also doesn't mean there's a thriving population.
Mark Dowling, along with Wilson, founded the Cougar Network in 2002 to study mountain lions in nontraditional areas.
"When you are in mountain lion country you're lucky to see one or two in your life, but you can find lion tracks and signs everywhere. It's not hard," he said. "If Kansas had a population, (verifiable) signs and tracks should be easy to find. But they're not."
Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or email@example.com.