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Debating mountain lion reports in the area

Our local area has been circulating one topic recently that has been at the forefront of many conversations on the outdoors. In the last eighteen months I have been bombarded by people asking me questions about one creature more than any other. The item that has been so prevalent on people’s minds is the possibility of a mountain lion living here in Grundy County. 

I will not presume, predict, or say definitively whether this is true or not, but I will lay out the facts for you and the things that I know. You can then make your own decision.

Around a year and a half ago I was approached by three people regarding three separate incidents. Each one of these folks has my utmost respect and I categorize them all as trustworthy. Two of the individuals are also avid hunters that spend countless hours in the outdoors. The details of their reports could go on forever, but in a nutshell, they all had encounters with what could be described as a mountain lion or cougar.

I have given several talks on the subject at local clubs and organizations. I kind of left things on the back burner until I have been approached by even more people in the last month about the same subject. All have seen what they are sure is a big cat. 

Here are the facts: mountain lions where once native to this area. Corporate hunting, loss of habitat, and loss of prey animals all but eliminated these creatures in Illinois.

The largest population of these cats near us resides in the Rapid City, South Dakota area. This population is doing quite well in fact. So well that this boom in numbers directly correlates to what we might be seeing here.

As new litters of cats are had each spring an updated hierarchy develops. Young male cats that no longer hang around their litter need to find a territory of their own. Older, more dominant males have much of the land claimed. If a young male cat cannot take over an existing territory he moves until he can find one. Sometimes these cats move east directly toward us.

Rapid City and the Black Hills are approximately 900 miles from Grundy County. When a cat starts to migrate they can cover that enormous distance in a very short time. Within two weeks they could be here in Illinois if they are on the move.

The proof of mountain lions in Illinois is reliant on three separate incidents. In April of 2008 a cat was shot and killed in Chicago. DNA tests confirmed this cat originated from the South Dakota population. In December of 2004 a bowhunter shot and killed a mountain lion near Peoria, IL and in July of 2000 in southwest Illinois a cat was found dead along some railroad tracks.  Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska have all had confirmed incidents as well.

Do we have what it takes for a mountain lion to survive here? Scientists argue about the true range of a big cat but it seems that most agree that an area of 100-400 square miles could be sufficient. Smaller territories are possible if conditions are right. All of the sightings I have been alerted to fall within a distance of less than twenty miles from each other. That falls well within a 400 square mile range. 

We have a tremendous deer population and we are fortunate enough to live within great river valleys. If you look at a satellite image of the area, the wooded areas around the Illinois River and its tributaries provide excellent cover.

All of this media hype creates a sighting frenzy that just builds upon itself. There are several things that you can do if you think that you have seen a mountain lion. First, try to find something nearby for perspective. Animals moving across an open area against an empty horizon can be terribly deceiving. A common house cat could look huge under the right circumstances. Compare the animal to a rock, tree, fence, or any other object that size can be related to.

Try and immediately find tracks and contact your local Conservation Police officer. Take pictures with something in the picture for a reference point. For example, lay your cell phone down next to a track so size can be seen. If possible, use a trail cam to try and capture a photo that an expert can analyze.

Keep a sharp eye. If there truly is a mountain lion in the area it is only a matter of time before someone gets a good picture of it on a trail camera or finds some more conclusive evidence.  Until then, it makes for some interesting conversation.

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