CARBONDALE, ILL. Kenny Tharp was hunting deer near the Mississippi River last season when he spotted something curled beneath a pine tree that he just couldn't believe: the body of a 98-pound cougar.
Tharp's discovery was only the second confirmed cougar sighting in more than a century in Illinois, and it came within five years of the first.
Reports of cougars, sometimes called mountain lions, have increased in the Midwest in recent years, and a nationwide effort is scratching for evidence of more in middle America, where the big cats thrived generations ago.
No government agency tracks cougar numbers in this country, so the Cougar Network, based in Concord, Mass., took up the challenge.
Using the discovery of carcasses, verifiable photos, and cougar DNA from scat and hair samples, the network is trying to measure the number of cougars east of the Rocky Mountains.
It isn't easy. Some people confuse cougars with bobcats, which are far more common in the Midwest, said Mark Dowling, who helped found the Cougar Network about three years ago.
"We constantly get pictures of things people think are mountain lions, and they turn out to be domestic cats and retrievers," Dowling said.
Cougars were hunted to near extinction in most of the Midwest by the early 1900s. Populations of the generally reclusive animals managed to survive over the years in remote, mountainous areas out West, but there's nothing verifiable to suggest that populations lived in the Midwest over the years, outside South Dakota's Black Hills, said Dave Hamilton, a Missouri Department of Conservation research biologist.
Cougar Network officials believe that may be changing.
In Illinois, a cougar was killed by a train in 2000 near Chester, about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis. Three have been killed in Iowa since 2000.
A young cougar with no signs of captivity was killed by a vehicle in 2003 near Fulton, Mo. That marked at least the eighth confirmed case in Missouri since 1994 when a hunter shot a small cougar near the sprawling Mark Twain National Forest.
Missouri is taking the cougar issue seriously. It deploys a specially trained 10-member response team of experts and law enforcement to collect evidence following credible sighting, Hamilton said.
Other Midwest sightings have been too close for human comfort.
Earlier this year in North Dakota, two mountain bikers came face to face with a cougar they say followed them for more than a mile and came within 10 feet. The 45-minute ordeal ended when the two chased off the animal by throwing rocks and screaming.
In 2003, an 80-pound mountain lion was captured inside the Omaha, Neb., city limits.
Some biologists suspect that many Midwest cougars are younger males driven out of western states by dominant males or by urban sprawl squeezing their habitats. They may be following natural pathways such as river corridors in search of hunting territory.
Others may be migrating from South Dakota, where an estimated 145 mountain lions are said to roam the state's portion of the Black Hills.
South Dakota's first hunting season for mountain lions got under way Oct. 1, and 11 cougars had been killed by Wednesday.
Clay Nielsen, a Southern Illinois University wildlife ecologist who heads the Cougar Network's scientific research, believes southern Illinois and Missouri's 1.5-million-acre Mark Twain forest would be a comfortable habitat for the animals. The regions have dense woods and underbrush for cover and an abundance of deer for prey.
What to do if confronted by a cougar
Though there have been dozens of confirmed cases of cougars in the Midwest since the early 1990s, officials say the chances of encountering a mountain lion are very small. Here are some tips if ever confronted by such an animal: ¢ Stop. Back away slowly if you can safely. Running may stimulate a lion's instinct to chase and attack. Face the lion, stand upright and maintain eye contact. ¢ Do not approach a mountain lion, especially one that's feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation, so give them a way to escape. ¢ Stay calm. Talk to the animal in a calm, yet firm voice. ¢ Do what you can to appear larger. Raise your arms, open your jacket if you're wearing one. If you have small children with you, protectively pick them up so they won't panic and run. ¢ If the lion behaves aggressively, throw stones, branches or whatever you can get your hands on without crouching down or turning your back. Wave your arms slowly and speak firmly, intent on convincing the lion that you're not prey and that you may be a danger to it. ¢ Fight back if a lion attacks. People successfully have fought back with rocks, sticks, caps or jackets, garden tools and bare hands. Remain standing or try to get back up.
- Source: Missouri Department of Conservation.