Missouri Man Spots Mountain Lion With Trail Camera

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The Missouri Department of Conservation has confirmed the 9th and 10th documented mountain lion occurrences in the Show-Me State in modern times.

The most recent confirmed report of a mountain lion in Missouri came in the form of a photograph taken Dec. 7 by an automatic trail camera. A bowhunter, Joe Neis, placed the camera on private land in Livingston County north of Chillicothe to monitor deer activity. He told investigators he had no idea the cat was in the area before the trail camera captured its image.

Conservation Department Resource Scientist Dave Hamilton announced the confirmation after he and other members of Missouri's Mountain Lion Response Team visited the site where the photo was taken and verified that evidence at the scene confirmed the authenticity of the photo.

The photo shows an apparently healthy mountain lion walking past the camera. The cat has dark spots on the insides of its front legs, indicating it is less than 2 years old. Hamilton estimated its weight at 110 to 120 pounds.

The other confirmation was based on an incident that occurred in November on private land in Shannon County. A hunter shot a doe at dusk and decided to wait until the next day to track and retrieve the deer. When he did, he found the carcass had been partially devoured. Closer examination by Conservation Department investigators showed convincing evidence that the wounded deer had been killed by a big cat and then fed upon.

"We have long been expecting the next mountain lion sighting in Missouri," said Hamilton. "It was overdue. We were averaging about one a year, and we have missed three years. It looks like it is evening out."

The Mountain Lion Response Team, headed by Hamilton, investigates many mountain lion reports each year. The Conservation Department formed the group in 1996 to ensure that all citizen reports are recorded and that timely investigations are conducted where physical evidence may exist. Most reports either cannot be verified or are found to involve other animals, such as dogs, deer, coyotes and bobcats. Surprisingly, house cats often are misidentified as mountain lions.

"Dog tracks account for more mistaken reports of mountain lions," said Hamilton. "Unlike mountain lion tracks, which seldom show claw marks, dog tracks usually do. That is an easy giveaway. House cats can be tricky for some, though."

Domestic cats' body shape and behavior are enough like those of mountain lions to create the potential for mistaken identity. When seen at a distance in an open field, often through the lenses of binoculars, rifle scopes or cameras, the illusion can be convincing.

"While part of the team was investigating the two sightings we eventually confirmed, others were following up on a report from Clark County that involved a video tape," said Hamilton. "The tape had been around for a year or so and had been seen by a lot of people. It was widely viewed as being a mountain lion, but it turned out to be another of many videos of an ordinary house cat."

Techniques used to tell the difference between photos of mountain lions and house cats include analyzing the ratio of body and head size, thickness of body, the shape of the back when the cat is seated on its haunches, and other body conformation factors.

"Those tests are fairly simple to apply to photographs when you are sitting in an office," said Hamilton. "Trying to do the same thing with a living animal in the field sometimes is more difficult. It is not surprising that people get fooled."

Mountain lions also are called cougars, pumas or panthers. So far, confirmed sightings support the theory that mountain lions seen in Missouri migrated here from western states. Hamilton noted that young males typically leave their birth areas looking for territories of their own, and often wander hundreds of miles before settling down.

"That is consistent with what we have documented in Missouri," he said. "A wealth of evidence leads us to believe that Missouri does not have an established, breeding population of mountain lions, just individuals filtering in from the west."

In addition to evidence that cougars found in Missouri are mostly young males, Hamilton points to a significant lack of evidence of an established population in Missouri. "In areas with breeding populations, physical evidence is very easy to find," he said. "You see lots of tracks. You find deer carcasses with the unique signs of mountain lion kills, and you see cougars of all ages, from cubs to adults, killed by cars. We don't see any of those things in Missouri."

Hamilton also said that with hundreds or even thousands of trail cameras like Mr. Neis' in use around the state, if cougars were present in significant numbers, he would expect to see many photos, not just one.

Most telling, says Hamilton, is the extremely small number of road kills in Missouri. Even states with small mountain lion populations record frequent road kills. South Dakota, where the statewide population is estimated at 200 cougars, has had over 20 road-killed in the past two years. In Florida, where the panther population is estimated at 70 to 100, 11 have died on roads this year.

Darrell Land, statewide Florida panther coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, called roadkill "an effective sampling method," though regrettably not one that permits returning "sampled" animals to the population.

Missouri's first confirmed mountain lion sighting in modern times came in 1994, when two men illegally killed a cougar near Eminence. Since then, five other cougars have been documented on film and video cameras. Two more, both young males, were killed by motorists. One was killed in the Kansas City area in 2002, the other near Fulton in 2003.

Mountain lions are not the only wildlife that wanders into Missouri from the west. Earlier this fall, the Conservation Department confirmed sightings of at least two elk in northwest Missouri.

Nor is Missouri the only state where dispersing mountain lions turn up. Cougars-mostly young males-also have wandered into Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma after decades of absence. Some of these animals carried radio collars and were known to have traveled up to 700 miles from their original capture sites.