Following the first confirmed mountain lion sightings in the early 1990s, the Missouri Department of Conservation formed a Mountain Lion Response Team (MLRT) to handle such reports as quickly and accurately as possible. Dave Hamilton, who chairs the team, says wildlife experts are always ready to look at a photograph, examine a footprint or view a video. Furthermore, all agency employees have been instructed to take every mountain lion report seriously and forward information to the MLRT for immediate action.
"Last year, we had more than 150 reports that made it into our records," said Hamilton. "That number really is only the tip of the iceberg. We only document those reports where there is enough evidence to allow us to investigate. Without anything physical -- things like tracks, hair, droppings, photos or video -- there's nothing to record."
Hamilton is a resource scientist who specializes in furbearing mammals. It is his job to keep tabs on reports of mountain lions, which also are known as cougars. He says the last week of March and the first two weeks in April provide a typical cross-section of mountain lion reports.
In Chariton County, the Conservation Department received several mountain lion reports that could not be verified. They got a break when landowners found a small deer with all the classic signs of a mountain lion attack. The animal had multiple bites to the throat. Its internal organs were removed from the carcass along with a lot of hair. The carcass had been dragged from the site of the kill in a field into a hidden area in a ditch, and most of the 50-pound animal had been consumed.
"All those clues clearly said 'cat,'" said Hamilton. "We examined the bite marks and found a good pair of tooth marks on the back of the skull. The distance between the canine teeth was precisely bobcat size."
He said the people who reported it were sure it was a mountain lion. "That's understandable," he said. "People just aren't used to seeing bobcats kill deer, but it happens."
Another potential mountain lion report that failed to pan out came from Washington County, where some sheep were attacked. An investigation showed the animals had many bites to the face. That, said Hamilton, is typical of an attack by dogs.
Then a Cape Girardeau County hunter reported having photos of a mountain lion on a camera used to monitor deer trails. That turned out to be a dog, too.A Warren County resident also had "deer cam" photos, but those showed a bobcat.
A 12-year-old hunter participating in the youth turkey season in Putnam County was frightened when a large animal approached him, responding to his turkey calling. He fired a warning shot over the animal's head and it fled. A conservation agent made plaster casts of footprints where the boy said a mountain lion had stood, but those turned out to be dog tracks.
Hamilton investigated a report of a cougar sighting north of Columbia, but found only dog and coyote tracks. MLRT members are investigating three reports in the Chillicothe area.
Those cases have a wealth of physical evidence, including tracks, scat and video. But so far the tracks have been identified as coming from a dog, and the video shows a house cat, a raccoon, a bobcat, an otter and a fox. The scat (fecal material) is exactly the right size for a bobcat, but Conservation Department officials are having a DNA analysis conducted just to be sure.
Hamilton noted that the Conservation Department did not have a single confirmed mountain lion sighting last year. He said that is OK; the Conservation Department isn't trying to restore mountain lions to the state.
Of the 152 mountain lion reports received in 2004, 17 were found to merit field investigations.
"Most cases don't warrant an investigation because there is no physical evidence to examine," said Hamilton. "In some cases, we don't hear about the sighting until days or weeks later. After that long, physical evidence that might have enabled us to confirm the sighting usually is gone."
Five reports that were investigated were confirmed to be other animals. As in years past, dogs accounted for most of the mistaken reports (two). A yellow Labrador retriever can look surprisingly like a mountain lion in dim light, and black Labradors sometimes are mistaken for "black panthers," although no such creature exists in North America.
A pair of turkey vultures huddled in the dim recesses of a cave fooled another mountain lion reporter. One person mistook a bobcat (Missouri's only other wild feline) for a mountain lion. The remaining case turned out to be a coyote.Of the 12 remaining cases, MLRT team members classified six as "improbable" and six simply as "unconfirmed."
Jackson and Cole counties were hotbeds of mountain lion reports, with 15 and 10 reports, respectively. Camden and Greene counties were runners-up, with nine reported cougar sightings each. The remaining 109 reports were scattered more or less randomly around the state. Christian and Taney counties, just south of Greene County, each had seven reported mountain lion sightings last year.
"It's hard to know what to make of the distribution," said Hamilton. "To some extent, it parallels population centers, so you might infer that the more people you have in an area the more reports you will get. Sometimes it seems like there is a suggestion factor at work. Once people know that others have reported seeing a mountain lion, the more likely they are to expect to see one themselves."
On the other hand, said Hamilton, the last two confirmed mountain lion sightings came from near Fulton in 2003 and Kansas City in 2002. Both those involved road-killed cougars, but if one mountain lion could find its way into those areas, why not another?
Biological evidence from three dead mountain lions that have been recovered in Missouri in the past seven years has shed little light on the mystery that surrounds Show-Me State cougars. None showed signs of having been held in captivity. Genetic testing showed all three were related to North American cats, rather than ones from Central and South America, where most captive cats have their family roots.
"The evidence is overwhelming that we do not have a wild, self sustaining mountain lion population in Missouri," said Hamilton. "In areas where mountain lions live and reproduce -- Colorado, for instance -- you see evidence of their presence in the form of roadkills every year. In Missouri, we have had two roadkills in the past 100 years. Is that evidence of a self-sustaining population, or just some stray individuals wandering in from the west?"
The distribution of all the sightings in the Midwest in recent years suggests the latter. So does the case of a young male cougar that was fitted with a radio collar. Its progress was tracked nearly 700 miles east from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Oklahoma just south of Wichita, Kansas.