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Big Cat Comeback?
Cougars (also known as mountain lions, pumas, panthers, and catamounts) are North America's largest feline predator. Reaching up to six feet in length and weighing as much as 200 pounds they're solitary creatures coming together only briefly to mate and living together only in family groups of mother and kittens. Quiet (they almost never vocalize), nocturnal, possessing superb hearing and sight, silent, stealthy and extremely wary, cougars are seldom glimpsed - even in areas with high cougar populations.
Once found in every one of the lower 48 states cougars were the object of a centuries long campaign of ruthless and organized extermination. Until 1973 when the federal Endangered Species Act granted them a legitimate legal status any cougar could be, and usually was, shot on sight. Since then every state known to harbor cougars has enacted legislation giving these big cats some measure of protection In addition a new awareness of the importance of large predators in maintaining and enhancing populations of their prey animals - in the cougar's case, deer - has changed general attitudes regarding these animals. As a result cougar populations have begun to rise.
Cougar Status in Illinois
Cougars are currently listed as extinct in Illinois. The last undeniably wild cougar in Illinois was shot somewhere in Cook County in the late 1850's. The official position of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) concerning any cougar shot or sighted since that time has been that the animal was an escaped pet, a circus refugee, or a misidentification of some other animal. But an event that occurred in July of 2000 may change all that.
On July 17, a bright moonlit night, a speeding freight train killed a cougar near Menard State Prison in Randolph County. An autopsy revealed that this cat was a healthy, mature, 110 pound male between four and six years of age. It showed no signs of wear on its paws to indicate recent travel, no evidence of confinement or human contact of any sort, all of its parasites were those commonly found in the midwest, and its last meal had been a fawn. Analysis of the cat's DNA revealed that it came from the southern race of mountain lions - those living from Mexico and Texas to central Arkansas. When all the evidence was in the conclusion was both surprising and inescapable - this was no escaped pet but a truly wild animal.
In the last five years cougar sightings have been increasing in southern Illinois. Dozens of people have reported spotting large, long-tailed cats in the Shawnee and elsewhere. Some, no doubt, are misidentifications of bobcats, coyotes or large dogs. A few might be escaped pets. But there are just too many reports from too many different people to dismiss them all on these grounds. Housewives, hunters, farmers, and tourists are all seeing and describing the same thing - cougars.
Cougars are stealthy
For those who scoff at the possibility of such a large carnivore living in secret in southern Illinois there's plenty of evidence to show that these animals are masters at avoiding detection. In California dispersing cougars have been routinely radio- tracked to within 300 feet of suburban homes without anyone noticing. Without the ability to radio-track and monitor these cats it's doubtful that anyone would ever have noticed. Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, have only recently been recognized as harboring the big cats. Small breeding populations have somehow managed to avoid detection there for nearly a century
And then there's the story of the Seattle Lion. A 530 acre municipal park within the city, home to over 300 people, concealed a young, 95 pound male cougar. Despite repeated police searches with dogs and constant vigilance by residents of the park it took more than a week to flush the cat into the open. Remember, this was in known cougar country in an area less than a square mile in extent, heavily populated and in the middle of one of North America's largest cities.
Southern Illinois' 4000 square miles of largely rural, thinly inhabited countryside teeming with deer and small game
would make ideal cougar habitat. Throw in a race of super-wary cats with a very small, non-breeding population and the possibility of
cougars in the Shawnee begins to look plausible.
Cougars require nearly two years of care and instruction from their mothers before being driven away to make their own way in the world. Females usually establish territories near or bordering their mothers' home range. Males on the other hand travel, sometimes long distances, before establishing a territory of their own.
Since cougars are large animals their home range is correspondingly large. Females require about 25 square miles to maintain themselves. Males have much larger territories that overlap the home ranges of several females. Simple math shows that even if southern Illinois had the maximum number of cats the area could support the number would still be less than 150 individual animals.
The Menard Cat
If there are cougars in the Shawnee - and this is denied by the IDNR who, quite reasonably, cite the lack of evidence of their presence - then their numbers are very low. The recent railroad kill however shows that at least one cougar has made it to our area - and without any help from us. Significantly this one was a male. And if one cat could do it then others certainly can.
The most likely scenario for the Menard cat's Illinois incarnation is that this was a dispersing male from Arkansas, the nearest officially recognized cougar habitat. Traveling up to 30 miles a night, crossing rivers on railroad bridges (cougars dislike swimming), and hiding by day, this cat could have arrived in Illinois undetected in less than two weeks. Coming from a population that only narrowly survived the ruthless and relentless cougar pogroms of the 19th and 20th century this cat certainly knew how dangerous any contact with humans could be. How long the cat lived here before its date with destiny is impossible to say, but the lack of travel wear on its paws indicates that it may very well have been living in the area, undetected, for some time.
If this is the first cougar to reach our area without human assistance then it's a harbinger of things to come. If, as seems more likely, it's the first undeniable evidence of cougars actually living in Illinois then we may very well have to begin thinking seriously about what sort of future relationship our two species will have.
The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri
Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung
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