Cougar sightings cause stir in Capitol

? Faced with a growing amount of evidence, Kansas Wildlife and Parks officials Tuesday came within a whisker of conceding there may be a cougar in Kansas, and that it may be prowling around Kansas University’s west campus.

“We would not say that they aren’t here,” said Matt Peek, a research biologist for the state agency.

But Peek and other Wildlife and Parks officials said they essentially would have to see a wild cougar in Kansas before stating with certainty the animals had returned to the state. So far, there have been mainly unconfirmed sightings and at least one fuzzy photograph snapped by a KU researcher.

The cougar debate that has raged for years in Lawrence came to the Legislature as the House Environment Committee heard testimony on the issue.

For Mark Jakubauskas, an assistant research professor for the Kansas Biological Survey, there is no doubt cougars have returned to Kansas.

Last fall, after numerous reports of cougar sightings in the west campus area, Jakubauskas placed a motion detection wildlife camera there and on Oct. 1 got an image of an animal some wildlife biologists have identified as a cougar.

About a week later, he and a colleague found some animal droppings in the vicinity of where the photo was taken. A DNA analysis of the droppings showed it was from a cougar.

“This is the first scientific proof of a free-range cougar in Kansas in 100 years,” he said.

And, he told lawmakers, it’s not surprising that cougars are in Kansas because they have been found, and sometimes killed, in all bordering states. Male cougars have a roaming range of more than 100 miles, he said.

Mark Jakubauskas, a Kansas University research professor, briefs the House Environment Committee with his evidence of a mountain lion sighting in Kansas. Jakubauskas showed the committee Tuesday at the Statehouse a photo he took in October believed to be that of a mountain lion.

“I find it difficult to believe they recognize political boundaries such as the Kansas state line,” Jakubauskas said.

Peek, with the Wildlife and Parks agency, said if the animal on west campus was a cougar, there was no evidence to determine whether it was a wild animal or a pet that had escaped or been released. There are 104 people in Kansas with permits to own cougars, the agency said.

Several committee members wondered what people could do if they came upon a cougar.

Kevin Jones, director of law enforcement for Wildlife and Parks, said it would be illegal to kill a cougar unless the person felt he or she or their property, such as livestock, were threatened by the animal.