St. Louis (KMOX) – They stalk snowy mountains, steamy jungles and stifling deserts from the Canadian Yukon to Cape Horn in South America. They put wide receivers to shame with their 15 foot high vertical jumps, and they can embarrass track stars with fast sprints. When they take down prey, they prefer to crush the spinal column or sever the windpipe with their powerful jaws, incapacitating and killing deer, elk and even moose in a single bite.
And they’re coming back to Missouri.
Mountain lion sightings are on the rise across the state, and some of the big cats have even popped up near St. Louis. A trail camera snapped a picture of a mountain lion in Chesterfield in January and on the last day of June, a cougar walked in front of a deputy’s car while he was on patrol (the sighting was not confirmed, but it is being called credible).
However, Bill Heatherly, Wildlife Programs Coordinator with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), put it in no uncertain terms that the state isn’t in the midst of a cougar epidemic.
“There is no evidence of a resident, reproducing population of mountain lions in Missouri,” he says.
So, why have there been so many sightings recently?
“What we believe is happening is that populations in Western states, primarily South Dakota, are growing, and young males are leaving those populations, dispersing in all directions . . . and mountain lions have shown up in Missouri, where they have not been seen in decades.”
And our state isn’t the only place they’re showing up. Heatherly explained that researchers in South Dakota used radio collars to track the movements of some young male pumas across the country, into the Midwest and beyond. Police officers killed a cougar in Chicago in 2008, and they’ve shown up in Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and even as far east as New Hampshire and Maine.
But even with seven confirmed sightings in the state since this time last year (the seven sightings before that took place over the course of almost eight years), Heatherly believes there won’t be a breeding population in the state for some time.
“There’s no question that it will take a number of years for females to reach the state of Missouri,” he says. “We won’t have a reproducting population until females arrive, and that is likely some years down the road.”
Heatherly also points out that the dangers of mountain lions are wildly overstated, admitting that while mountain lions can cause deaths, it’s an unusual occurence. The Arizona Game and Fish Department published a report showing that between 1991 to 2004, only 10 people in the United States and Canada had been killed by mountain lions – that’s less than one per year. The most recent attack on a human by a mountain lion that resulted in a kill was in 2008.
“Mountain lions in Missouri is a new phenomenon, and citizens are concerned for their safety,” he says. “We’d like to remind people that in Western states where there are established populations, you don’t hear about people being attacked and killed on a daily basis. “
Heatherly also doesn’t put too much faith in mere sightings, until they’re confirmed by the MDC.
“Many different kinds of animals are reported as mountain lions, and we’ve been able to show that it was not,” he says.
Still, evidence shows that these powerful predators are in Missouri, and Heatherly thinks, eventually, they’ll be here to stay.
That is, if they can compete with the bears.
Copyright KMOX 2011