At his girlfriend’s soft, “Look,” Terry Foss turned and saw an animal about 70 yards from where he stood beside their home in rural Douglas County.
“She knew right away what it was, and I knew right away. It was a mountain lion,” Foss said of the mid-May encounter. He estimates it stood at the edge of some woods for 30 to 40 seconds before turning and leaving. Foss took a photo with his cellphone.
And with that encounter, Foss became one of thousands to say they’ve seen a mountain lion in Kansas.
The question is, though, how many of those people really did see such a big cat in Kansas? Biologists say the percentage is pretty low.
“People want to see something exciting, and mountain lions are exciting,” said Michelle La Rue, executive director of the Cougar Network, a conservation group that studies mountain lion reports east of the Rocky Mountains. “But unfortunately for them, most have seen something else.”
For nearly 100 years, Kansas biologists have heard stories and followed up on hundreds of reported sightings of mountain lions or signs they’ve left, such as tracks, claw marks or droppings. Yet state biologists have confirmed only about 20 mountain lions in Kansas over the past 113 years.
“Everybody has their mountain lion story,” said Matt Peek, a Kansas biologist. “Either they’ve seen one or they know somebody who has a good mountain lion story, and they’ll share it.”
So it is with most Midwestern states.
The Missouri Department of Conservation said fewer than 1 percent of the reports its Mountain Lion Response Team investigates turn out to be true. Oklahoma biologist Jerrod Davis gets up to 75 mountain lion reports a month. Yet that state has had only 25 confirmed cases in 15 years.
“Oh, I believe people are seeing something,” Davis said, “and they’re wanting to see a mountain lion, but obviously the majority are not.”
What are the odds?
First, it’s not impossible to have seen a wild mountain lion in Kansas. Pre-settlement, they roamed all parts of the state, but the last of the original stock was killed in western Kansas in 1904.
Still, there have always been isolated populations in remote areas of New Mexico and Colorado. For several decades, they have lived within 100 miles of southwest Kansas – an easy hike for a mountain lion.
That’s why state biologists never said mountain lions didn’t exist here, just that they had no modern proof of mountain lions in Kansas.
Proof came in 2007, when a landowner shot a mountain lion near Medicine Lodge. Now, nearly every year, a trail camera photo, video or carcass is found of a mountain lion in Kansas.
The timing of mountain lions reappearing in Kansas corresponds with populations becoming overcrowded in places like the South Dakota Black Hills, Colorado and New Mexico. Big-cat crowding sent young animals wandering in search of new territory as far east as Connecticut.
(Contrary to popular rumor, the state of Kansas has never released mountain lions to control the deer population.)
Wildlife experts caution that Kansas is far from overrun with big cats.
“We’ve had right at 20 confirmations, the last being at Fort Riley (last fall),” said Matt Peek, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fur bearer biologist. “That’s not a lot over 10 years, and we’re pretty sure some of those confirmations are from the same mountain lion.”
In 2015, Kansans reported five sightings, photos or video of what’s assumed to be the same lion as it moved through central Kansas. Photos from Nebraska and Oklahoma are believed to show the same animal in the days before and after it was in Kansas.
Actual sightings are rare even in states with established populations. In past interviews, Rick Winslow of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department said there are ranchers, hunters and hikers who go their entire lives without seeing a live mountain lion despite a mountain lion population estimated at 3,000 animals.
Biologists like Winslow and others in Colorado and Wyoming say it’s still easy to tell when an area has many mountain lions.
About 10 percent of the population gets killed every year, according to estimates. That includes roadkills, of which Oklahoma and Missouri have had several. None have been found in Kansas. Others get caught in coyote traps or are shot for bothering livestock. But not in Kansas.
The widespread use of trail cameras, which hunters place on trails used by deer and next to wildlife feeders, is probably the most useful tool for finding mountain lions, which frequent the trails looking for food like deer or raccoons.
La Rue said one problem is most first-hand reports come from sightings lasting only a few seconds. Many reports are probably of dogs, house cats, coyotes and, quite often, bobcats.
Still, she said there are some things to consider.
Bobcats have short tails. Mountain lions have long tails, black at the tip, that usually curl up toward the end, Davis said. Color and size are also different with bobcats, house cats and dogs.
La Rue said if a cat is pure black, it’s not a mountain lion. Over the past 500 years, a black mountain lion has never been documented in North America. Not once.
“When somebody sends us a photo of a black cat, it’s almost always a house cat,” La Rue said. “You’d think the size would give it away, but people get excited.”
Peek said that when some don’t see spots on a sizable cat, they assume it’s a mountain lion and not a bobcat. Many Kansas bobcats, he said, show spots only on their bellies.
He also said he’s looked at many photos that have an animal that may be out of focus, far away or blocked by brush, and he’s not been able to say whether it was a mountain lion.
Such is the case with the photo Foss shared with Peek. When he looks at the original photo, Foss said he’s “99.9 percent sure” it’s a mountain lion. Peek looked at an image e-mailed to him.
“I just can’t see it well enough to make a positive identification of a mountain lion,” Peek said. “But the size appears to be consistent with a bobcat rather than it being a 4- or 5-foot-long animal.”
For those who think they’ve just seen a mountain lion or are looking at a photo, Peek suggests they try to find a way to judge its size by going to where the animal had been and finding a reference point.
“If you know an animal came up to a certain spot on a tree, go see how high that is,” said Peek. “If it’s only about a foot off the ground or waist-high, it wasn’t a mountain lion.” Standing on all fours, mountain lions are about 24 inches high at the shoulder, or a little higher.
La Rue has looked at a lot of photos of paw prints that people have misidentified as mountain lion.
“People get excited by a big track, but we have a lot of big dogs out there leaving big tracks,” she said. “One good rule of thumb is that if you can see claws, it’s not a mountain lion.”
Like most species of cats, lions can totally retract their claws so they don’t show up in tracks, even in mud or sand. Mountain lion tracks are more rounded than most dog tracks and are about 3 to 4 inches wide.
Scratches on the sides of cattle or horses also do not prove a mountain lion is in the area. Dozens of such reports have been investigated by Peek and other biologists in Kansas. None appears to have been attacked by mountain lions, Peek said.
Winslow said attacks on adult horses and cattle are rare because of the risk of injury to the cat. Smaller domestic animals, like sheep, dogs, goats, calves and foals, however, could be easy targets.
Beware the hoax
Peek cautions against believing any story about a Kansan shooting a mountain lion and game wardens finding it because it had a tracking chip under its skin. Kansas has never had such a program.
At least once a year, a photograph of a mountain lion appears on the internet saying it was taken near a Kansas town.
Last summer there was one, lying in a cornfield, allegedly taken in several locations in western Kansas. It was actually taken in Brazil.
Another popular hoax involves a nighttime photo of a mountain lion dragging a 10-point buck by the neck. It was in Texas, not Kansas. The same photo was said to have been taken in at least 12 other states.
Several photos have made the rounds that show female mountain lions with cubs. Again, not in Kansas.
To date, there have been no confirmed mountain lion cubs in Kansas, Oklahoma or eastward. The majority of mountain lions that head east from established populations have been males, though Kansas has had one female mountain lion found and Oklahoma three.