Mountain lions possible but rarely confirmed in Missouri
El Dorado Springs, Mo. -- Mountain lions occasionally wander into Missouri from other states, but there is no proof of a self-sustaining, reproducing population, a wildlife expert said Thursday (Sept. 16) at a public forum.
The 10 cases confirmed since 1994 by the Missouri Department of Conservation's (MDC) Mountain Lion Response Team are too few to indicate that the big cats have re-established a permanent presence in the state, said Rex Martensen, Private Lands Program supervisor for the MDC.
“We have not been able to document a reproducing population,” Martensen told about 60 people attending the presentation at the Opera House Theatre in El Dorado Springs.
There have been no mountain lions confirmed in the El Dorado Springs area or surrounding counties by the MDC. The closest cases are a wild mountain lion killed in Kansas City, north of the Missouri River, in 2002, and a video taken in Christian County in 1997 where the animal’s behavior indicated it had probably been held in captivity.
Mountain lions are also commonly called cougars, panthers and pumas. They were present in Missouri before pioneer settlement. But the last historical confirmed wild mountain lion was killed in southeast Missouri in 1927. The state’s forests and deer populations were at a low ebb then, too.
The big cats survived in the West where hunting traditions for them continue. But wildlife protections have allowed populations in some western states to grow despite hunting, Martensen said. Meanwhile, Missouri’s wild lands have rebounded thanks to conservation. Deer and wild turkey, prime food for mountain lions, have returned.
Most mountain lions confirmed in Missouri in modern times, such as two killed on highways, are young males dispersing from western states and looking for new territory to the east, Martensen said.
The Black Hills of South Dakota has a mountain lion population and biologists there have put radio collars on some to track movement, he said. Two of those collared mountain lions moved toward Missouri, as one was later killed in Oklahoma and another in central Nebraska.
The MDC has no programs or intention to release or restock mountain lions into the state, Martensen said. Nor has the department ever put tracking collars on any mountain lions.
But the department is interested in confirming mountain lions that wander into the state, he said. Anyone with physical evidence such as photos, tracks or scat can contact the Mountain Lion Response Team at email@example.com. Digital photographs are a good way to check evidence quickly.
Mountain lions are a protected wildlife species in Missouri and cannot be killed at will. However, regulations do allow mountain lions to be killed to protect people, pets, livestock and property. Any mountain lions killed should be reported immediately to Conservation Department offices.
More than 90 percent of reported mountain lion sightings or photographs turn out to be bobcats, house cats, dogs or doctored photographs circulating on the Internet, Martensen said. Bobcats are common in Missouri and often mistaken for mountain lions.
One myth is the existence of “black panthers.” That color pattern or separate species does not exist, he said. However people who keep exotic wildlife sometimes turn loose a black color phase of leopard or jaguar, Martensen said. Authorities have confirmed a few such cases.
One audience member asked about a calf that was killed. Martensen said he could not be sure of that case since he did not investigate it. But he said there have been no documented cases of livestock damage by mountain lions in Missouri. Most cattle damage comes from free-roaming dogs or coyotes, he said. Mountain lions are finicky cats with consistent habits in how they hunt and feed, and they leave signs in their territories such as scrapes.
An audience member asked about hearing animal “screams” in the woods, and she wondered if it could be a mountain lion. Martensen said mountain lions do very little vocalizing except in the presence of other cougars in their territory. Foxes, owls and other animals often make screaming noises that can be frightening.
For more information about mountain lions in Missouri, and tips for identifying signs such as tracks, go to http://mdc.mo.gov/8340.