Last month a bowhunter got a surprise when he checked a motion-activated trail camera in Rawlins County, in northwest Kansas. Amid the pictures of deer were two unmistakable images of the same mountain lion.
“I was really, really excited to catch one in photos that clear,” said Justin, who prefers only his first name be used. “I knew it was a pretty big deal.”
It was an even bigger deal when the photos hit social media. Suddenly, it seemed Kansas was over-run with the tawny-colored predators.
Justin’s photos drew about 144,000 views, has been shared about 700 times, and has drawn more than 160 comments within two weeks of being posted on the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism’s Facebook page. (Such hysteria, is one reason Justin didn’t want his last name used.)
“Most of the comments were from people saying they’d seen mountain lions in Kansas,” said Mike Miller, Wildlife and Parks information chief. “Some said they’d seen a mother with two babies. Some commented about a horse or cattle that had been attacked by a mountain lion.”
So, is Kansas becoming overrun with the large, predatory felines? Is it still safe to let the horse out of the barn and the kids play outdoors? Is the day coming when we might at least have a resident mountain lion population?
According to biologists the answer is no, yes, and ... mmmmm, maybe.
Like most of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, Kansas’ original mountain lion population was gone in the early 1900s, due to unregulated hunting. They were gone from the prairie states for many decades.
John Kanta, a South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks biologist, said the department thinks the big cats returned to the Black Hills, 8,426 square miles of rugged mountains in western South Dakota, in the 1950s.
About 25 years ago that population began to expand so much that young mountain lions began spreading in all directions. Kanta said most wandered westward, toward good habitat in the Bighorn Mountains and other steep ranges. Some struck off across the prairie.
He said things like road-killed cats and trail camera photos have documented when the eastward spread began in the 1990s. One cat with DNA similar to those in the Black Hills was road-killed in Connecticut.
First documented sighting
Despite thousands of reported sightings, Kansas’ first documented mountain lion was shot by a landowner in 2007 near Medicine Lodge. Fifteen more have been documented since.
“That sounds like a lot,” said Matt Peek, Wildlife and Parks furbearer biologist. “We’re pretty sure five of the six documentations last year were the same cat. We’re probably just getting a few dispersing animals now and then, trickling through.”
Other biologists in Midwestern states say the same.
Alan Leary, Missouri Deparment of Conservation wildlife management coordinator, said Missouri has had a Mountain Lion Response Team for 22 years that’s helped document 64 confirmations, although several confirmations could be from the same cat.
The team’s website said fewer than 1 percent of the leads it has followed have been confirmed. They, like Kansas, have found no evidence of a reproducing population.
Kanta said there are now small, reproducing populations in the Pine Ridge area of Nebraska, near the Black Hills and the broken badlands of North Dakota. Nearly all of the big cats moving through prairie grasslands and farm country have been young males.
“That means you’re kind of missing a key ingredient,” Kanta said, referring to female mountain lions. “That’s another reason (young males) keep dispersing is that they’re looking for females as well as good territory.” He said the odds of the few nomadic males on the prairie finding nearly non-existent females is extremely low.
Peek said research has shown that most of Kansas is actually poor habitat for mountain lions. While there’s plenty of food, mountain lions like broken areas where it’s easy to hide and ambush prey.
“Most of the lion habitat in Kansas is in long, very narrow corridors, like a river system,” Peek said. Those areas can’t hold many mountain lions, since most male cats like a home range of around 200 square miles, according to Kanta.
Still, might a tom set up shop along someplace like the Arkansas River in southwest Kansas, and a female finally happen along?
“Given time, who knows? I guess it could happen,” Peek said. “Sometimes they have proven to be pretty adaptable.”
Little threat to people, large livestock
Mountain lions pose little threat to people and large livestock, according to Kanta and Rick Winslow, of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. Kanta of South Dakota said they have no known attacks on humans in that state, despite that state’s millions of annual tourists and the 200-plus big cat population. One fatal mountain lion attack was reported in New Mexico in the past 40 years, despite a statewide population of up to 3,000 mountain lions.
Adult livestock, especially horses, are almost never attacked.
“A mountain lion is smart enough to know that a full-grown horse is something that could kill it, instead,” Winslow said. “They’d want nothing to do with those legs and hooves. There’s a reason they prefer deer-sized animals, or smaller.” Studies have shown raccoons are a top food of mountain lions moving across the prairie.
Reports of horses and cattle seen with claw marks from mountain lions are probably false. Winslow said, “...if lion attacked a horse those would be deep puncture wounds, not scratches, That cat would be hanging on for dear life.”
Kanta said horse and cattle attacks haven’t happened in the Black Hills, with the exception of maybe a deer-sized colt. Family pets, goats and sheep, however, are often just the right size.
“If you were a guy with 1,000 sheep in the Black Hills, I’d think you’ve have plenty of mountain lion kills,” Kanta said.
Justin, the Kansas hunter with the great mountain lion photos, said he’s not worried. He went to a hunting blind near the trail cameras the next morning hoping to find a mountain lion.
“I didn’t see the mountain lion, but I did shoot a nice buck with my bow,” Justin said. “I took my young daughter back to check the trail camera with me last weekend. There’s nothing to be afraid of, I know that.”