Mountain Lions in Iowa

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Sometimes, it's a shadowy form at dusk. Perhaps a quick glimpse through the brush. Over the last few years, wildlife biologist Ron Andrews has logged more than 200 reports from people who believe they saw a mountain lion in Iowa.

It is hard evidence, though; a clear track, droppings or a photograph that is needed for a confirmed sighting. Now, over the last three months, two mountain lions-or cougars-- have been killed; one in Wayne County in southern Iowa, the other in the northwest corner of the state in Sioux County. A couple years ago, one was hit and killed by a car, near Harlan in western Iowa. The evidence doesn't get any more solid than that.

So, are there mountain lions in Iowa?

"That is certainly the case with (those) three animals," agrees Andrews, the Department of Natural Resources' furbearer biologist. "We also have a half dozen reports of what seem to be mountain lion tracks. Then, we have numerous reports from people who think they've seen mountain lions; some of which are probably true...others which are not."

Julie and Todd Hauser of Solon fall into that 'unconfirmed' category. But they know what they watched for about ten seconds, November 29 near the west edge of Solon, close to Lake Macbride. "It was stopped, a couple hundred yards away from us, as we walked the dog in a field," recalls Julie Hauser. "Todd first said, 'there's a deer'. Then, it started running, with it's ears held the way cats do. With the long tail, we knew what it was."

Late the next day, about four miles south of there, Mike Brown was pulling into home, just off Highway 1. In the fading daylight, his headlights accented an animal in the ravine. "I saw something move," recalls Brown. "It ran down the side of the ravine and turned. I saw it for maybe five to eight seconds. I know it was a mountain lion. It was darker than I would have thought, but it was a mountain lion." Brown was skeptical two years ago, when his wife and daughter thought they saw a cougar in the wooded ravine. Not anymore.

Want more? Six days later, a deer hunter stared at a mountain lion track, as he stepped over a fence, six miles northwest of Solon. It was rounded, five or six inches across; with no claw marks showing; unlike a canine print. "I know a mountain lion track," he emphasized. And those are just recent incidents from one county.

Andrews doesn't disagree. "People are convinced they have seen these animals. We have no reason to say they haven't. We need hard evidence, though, to confirm it." The recent cougar carcasses are the most obvious proof. Clear paw prints, droppings, a photo or video would also settle the issue.

Years ago, when told of a big cat sighting, a wildlife biologist or conservation officer would pay a trip to the local guy who kept a mountain lion in a cage 'out back'. More often than not, they would discover that the cat had strayed. Now, they look to the west. "States west and south of Iowa are experiencing the same phenomenon," notes Andrews. "These are young males, pushed out of the territory by older males. They're just kind of wandering. It's real easy for a mountain lion to move 50, 60, even 70 miles in one night." With the extensive creek-to-river system in southern Iowa, it would take little effort to follow those corridors far from home.

Often, captive cougars are declawed and have telltale tooth wear. Not the recent cats, though. "These animals all had nice, sharp claws...very good teeth," confirms Andrews. "They are very likely wild animals. Still, there are a number of mountain lions in captivity. I'm sure, on occasion, some escape, too."

Are they here to stay? "In the short term, I believe the sightings could increase," forecasts Andrews. "We will probably have more sightings, others shot (it is not illegal to shoot a mountain lion). For the long term? That's a good question."

Mountain Lion Myth Debunked

Maybe you've heard the rumor, too. You know, the one where 'they' say the Department of Natural Resources is releasing mountain lions to control the deer herd. I hear it from somebody every couple weeks or so. If you want to believe it, stop reading right now.

"The DNR did not, has not released any mountain lions in the state of Iowa," states DNR wildlife biologist Ron Andrews. "In fact, if they think about it a little bit, politically it would be a real unwise thing to do. The public should realize that we have a little more sense than that."

Sorry to burst your bubble. Andrews concedes that lions may be following the increase of deer herds throughout the Midwest, but says that's as close as that connection gets.

Another explanation may come from the expanded sightings of bobcats in the last decade. The smaller bobcats (20-25 pounds, stub tails, mottled fur versus 100 pounds for cougars with their long distinctive tails and consistent coat color) are caught occasionally in traps. To help monitor the range of these smaller predators-which have always been in Iowa-biologists have attached radio telemetry collars to about 20 such bobcats in south central Iowa before releasing (note: not re-introducing) them right back where they are living.