Most cougar sightings are just big cat tales
I’ve got mountain lions on my mind.
For the past month, cougars have clawed into my life with surprising regularity, considering they are secretive and not officially present in Illinois.
Most intrusions come via membership in the Eastern Cougar e-mail exchange. A recent arrival was the story of Martha Smith, an 80-year-old resident of Fairburn, S.D., who shot a big cat in her yard last week.
“I could see the tail switching and he was snarling and spittin’,” Smith told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. “For Heaven’s sakes, I thought, I’d have to shoot it.”
Smith’s first shot missed. But her second blast from a .22 rifle killed the six-month-old cat, which had paws “bigger than a man’s hand.”
Thursday brought reports of three cougars caught in bobcat snares in North Dakota’s Badlands. That area produced 51 confirmed cat sightings in 2007. Perhaps not surprisingly, both Dakotas have cougar hunting seasons, with 18 shot last year in South Dakota.
Not that you need to live in the Dakotas to hear cougar tales. Missouri and Nebraska both have state-run Web sites listing confirmed sightings. Here in Illinois, unconfirmed big cat reports are almost as numerous as grey hairs on the head of former JS columnist Phil Theobald. Yes, a few years ago even Theobald reported a cougar on his property near Fairview.
Similar reports stream in regularly, including last week’s e-mail from Jan Wedell of Galesburg. Wedell said her daughter saw two “big cats” near Kickapoo on Nov. 23.
Personal accounts are nearly as common. After pumping gas the other day, Chad Jordan of Elmwood mentioned that a Peoria County trapper had just lost a trap to what was thought to be a big cat. The catch circle around the trap — an indication of the size of an animal trapped — was larger than anything the veteran trapper normally sees.
That led to a few minutes of story swapping: mountain lions escaping from Wild Prairie State Park, coon hunters treeing a large critter that kept escaping and large paw prints with no claws.
Such cougar conversations are, for me, enjoyable. My favorite is one about the midget in Springdale Cemetery who had allegedly spotted a big cat (begging the question, “Wouldn’t they all be?”).
Beyond the humor, thinking a powerful predator might be near at hand is both scary and enticing. And I’m actually a little surprised no dead cougar emerged from the Macomb area this fall, since sightings there have been frequent and fairly reliable.
But let’s be honest. Most of us are susceptible to the power of suggestion. If you tell me a bear was spotted in my backyard, chances are the next black dog wandering past in dim light will look an awful lot like a bear.
The same is true with cougars. Illinois furbearer biologist Bob Bluett has a 3-inch-thick file filled with cougar sightings.
“And those are the ones where a biologist has actually gone out and taken the information and looked at what evidence was in the field,” Bluett said. “All the word-of-mouth ones are on top of that.”
Yet after all that, the confirmed cougar count in Illinois stands at two: one “found dead” by bowhunters along the Mississippi River in December of 2004 and one found dead on railroad tracks in Randolph County in the summer of 2000.
Three inches of paper boils down to two sheets of actual confirmation.
“Everybody thinks the state has denied the existence of cougars in Illinois. That’s not true at all,” said John Buhnerkempe, head of the DNR’s wildlife division. “What we do say is there is no breeding population, but that individuals have and may occasionally wander into the state.”
So generally speaking, no matter what you think you saw, odds are slim you actually saw a cougar. Slim, but not non-existent. As Bluett said, “It will happen again sooner or later.”
Certainly you’ll never hear me snicker at another sighting, unless a midget is involved.
In 2006 while taking a break from hunting in North Dakota, a group of us spent a morning at a tavern in the memorably named town of Mohall. At some point, conversation turned to a mountain lion somebody had supposedly seen outside town.
Eyes rolled. Snickers were stifled.
A few days later after returning to Illinois, I opened a hair-raising e-mail. During a pheasant hunt not long after we left, Kent Ferguson shot a mountain lion after his dog got in a tussle with the big cat. Ferguson was hunting just outside Mohall.
FISHING REPORT: The Powerton Generating Station is back operating and fishing action at the cooling lake’s hot-water discharge has improved for bank anglers, who can wet a line daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The best bet right now is blue catfish, though small plump bluegill are plentiful and anglers were catching occasional yellow bass, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass on Wednesday.
Goose chase: Central Illinois goose hunters are glad there’s no longer a harvest quota in place. Wives of those hunters may not be so happy.
Because what has already been a good Canada goose season shows no signs of slowing anytime soon. Wednesday’s aerial survey showed 20,485 Canada geese in west-central Illinois. Of those, 12,115 were in Fulton County and 6,260 were in Knox County.
Also notable was the count of 5,250 snow geese in west-central counties and another 24,700 snows on the lower Illinois River Valley. Goose season ends Saturday in the North Zone but lasts through Jan. 31 in the Central Zone.
RIVER FLOODING: Flooding conditions along the Illinois River will make hunting, fishing and eagle watching along the river more difficult in the week to come. Parts of Starved Rock State Park, for instance, are already under water with a crest still to come at Peoria and Havana.
JEFF LAMPE is Journal Star outdoorscolumnist. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3212 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org