WICHITA — A north-central Kansas archery deer hunter has added to the proof that mountain lions are roaming Kansas.
Caleb Mahin, of rural Courtland, found several images of what appears to be a mountain lion on a remote-controlled camera he had placed near the Republican River in Republic County.
Matt Peek, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, examined the photos and thinks they show the fourth confirmed mountain lion in Kansas in the past three years.
The first was shot near Medicine Lodge in 2007. Before that it had been more than 100 years since a wild mountain lion had been confirmed in the state.
Another was photographed by a hunter last fall. The third confirmation came when a radio-collared cat wandered into Kansas from Colorado this spring.
Mahin admits he was just lucky to get photos of what appears to be a rear view of a mountain lion.
He's one of thousands of hunters and wildlife watchers who place the motion-activated cameras afield, often over bait piles and other things that draw animals to the spot.
"It's just always entertaining to see what pops up or goes by the camera," said Mahin, 25. "You get big bucks, bobcats. Last year I got a shot of two does standing on their hind legs boxing over a corn pile."
On Oct. 18 he placed the camera where he had planted a food plot near the river. He returned a few days later and pulled the camera's memory card. After hunting another location he viewed the card that evening at home.
"I couldn't believe it. I did a real double-take," he said of when he looked at the first image. "One of the guys I live with was upstairs and I hollered at him to come down so he could make sure I was really seeing what I was seeing."
The camera shot several images of the animal a few minutes before midnight on Oct. 19.
Peek and other biologists were at the scene Tuesday, looking for droppings, hair, signs of a fresh kill or any other evidence of the mountain lion. None was found.
Peek, furbearer biologist, said anything that held DNA samples may have provided information about the cat's origin.
The presence of mountain lions has been one of the most hotly debated wildlife topics in Kansas and other prairie and eastern states for decades.
For many years some accused Wildlife and Parks of stocking the animals to control deer numbers and then denying they were in Kansas.
In past interviews Peek and other biologists said mountain lions were never released in Kansas and that the agency had long said they had no solid proof they were in Kansas.
They were quick to go public with the dead lion from 2007 and the one photographed last fall. News of the radio-collared lion in extreme western Kansas was withheld prior to a Kansas Wildlife and Parks Commission meeting in late June.
Reports of mountain lions have been on the rise in other Midwestern states, too. Nebraska biologists report scores of confirmations within about the past 10 years. Most are in northwestern Nebraska.
It's believed their mountain lions are coming from an expanding population in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Most of the mountain lions found far from the Black Hills or Rocky Mountains have been young males out searching for a new territory.
Peek said he can't tell if the animal's age or gender by looking at the trail cam photos. He wouldn't be surprised if more are occasionally found in Kansas.
"I think the factors that led to mountain lions showing up in other states are still occurring in western populations," he said. "They're possibly even increasing."
Some have gone amazing distances. The radio-collared cat that walked nearly 200 miles across Kansas from March 3-25 had been released near Estes Park, Colo., the previous October.
After hiking through Kansas it eventually ended up in New Mexico, traveling a total of more than 1,000 miles.
Mahin thought it's possible the animal in his photos could have come from farther west, possibly following the Republican River or its tributaries from northeastern Colorado, through much of Nebraska and into Kansas.
Though he had heard rumors of mountain lions in the area for years, Mahin doubts it had been along that stretch of river very long.
"I've been hunting a lot up there for about eight or 10 years and never seen a track or any sign of a mountain lion," he said.
Biologists in other states have long said if Kansas had many mountain lions they would be easy to confirm. Roadkills are fairly common in the Black Hills, Colorado and other mountain states.
Trail cameras placed on deer trails have confirmed a good number in northern Nebraska.
Mahin said he has no fear of a run-in with a mountain lion while hunting the property.
In fact he plans on spending a lot of time there in the coming weeks as deer get more active during their November breeding season.
"It's a really good spot during the rut," he said. "Bucks get rolling through there looking for does in heat. It's kind of near a bedding area for does."
And that possibly explains why the big cat in his photos was there, too.