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People are fascinated with the idea of Illinois cougars

Published: Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 7:35 p.m. CST

Over the weekend, a friend of mine handed me an article from a newspaper she had clipped. Low and behold, right there in vivid color was a picture of a cougar. This creature was not photographed in some remote corner of the Rockies, nor was it taken in the famed western lands of South Dakota. This cougar was photographed right here in Illinois.

The article states that a trail camera captured the big cat. A local hunter had set up the camera to monitor the deer activity on the property he hunted. When he went to check his photos, he got quite the surprise. The photo was taken near Jacksonville, IL.

How close is that to Grundy County? Jacksonville is located about three hours south of here. If you looked on a map, you would see that it is located directly west of Springfield.

The article goes on to state that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources indeed did confirm that this photo is of a cougar, or mountain lion. The article goes on to mention that DNR biologist, Bob Bluett, said that it is impossible to tell if the animal is still in the same area or if the cat has moved on.

A year or so ago I wrote about this very subject. In fact, I have given several talks in the community about these animals and the likelyhood that they do exist in Illinois, or even in and around Grundy County. There are always rumors of seeing big cats but there is rarely conclusive evidence.

Most photos that I’ve seen of supposed mountain lions are sketchy at best. There is usually nothing to compare size, the quality of the photo has a lot to be desired, and the subject matter is never clear. Many times the supposed photos are just of feral cats.

This photo though, is quite clear and convincing. As soon as I showed this photo to others, I was bombarded with questions. How many more are there? How did they get here? Are they protected?

In the research that I have done and people that I have talked to I have been able to ascertain a few reasonable answers for you.  First, odds are that this cougar in Jacksonville is a lone male.  Young male cougars are often driven out of the area they grew up in and are forced to find their own territory.  As you can imagine, the territory needed to support a top predator on the food chain is immense.  Therefore, the young outcasts cover lots of territory trying to find a place to call their own.

How did the cat get here? When mountain lions are on the move they cover many miles in one day. It is not unreasonable to think that a cat from South Dakota could travel to Illinois in just a few weeks. In the past, is seems that cats that are found in Illinois have likely come through Wisconsin, but that is mostly speculation.

As far as the idea of a cougar in Illinois being protected, that is an interesting topic. There are no game laws in Illinois regarding these big cats. When conservation laws were written in the mid 1900s mountain lions were no longer present in Illinois. They used to thrive here, but market hunting, urban sprawl, and lack of game laws all but eliminated them in the Prairie State. Therefore, there is nothing on the books regarding them.

It seems that within the last two years there has been many more reported sightings of cougars throughout the Midwest. I know this topic has been written and talked about a fair amount in Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin. In each of these situations it seemed that it was one lone cat on the move, very similar to what seems to be the case near Jacksonville.

Do we have the habitat to support a top predator? In my humble opinion, I think so. Illinois has an abundant population of deer, which is a popular prey animal for cougars. Our state also has lots of areas that are not accessed by humans all that often. Our thickly wooded river valleys are a perfect example.

If there were many cats here though, I think that we would be receiving more confirmed reports. I believe this to be true simply because of the vast number of trail cameras that exist in our woods. The Jacksonville cat was seen because of these cameras.

It will be interesting to see if we hear any more about this particular sighting. I’m guessing that this one confirmed report will spur numerous other sightings that may or may not be legit. Only time will tell. It is interesting though to think that the next time you head to the woods, you may not be the only predator on the prowl.

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