Mountain lion sightings in state increase

Monday, September 8, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Reports of mountain lions in Missouri have become more common in recent months.

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.

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.

Tests performed on that mountain lion revealed it was a juvenile male with no signs of having been in captivity, said Dave Hamilton, research biologist with the Conservation Department.

"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."

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 said 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."

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. Now 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.

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.

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.

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