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  • January 3rd, 2020

I’M NOT LION TO YAH!

By Joel M. Vance

 

Back in the 1970s there was a report of a mountain lion roaming the wilds of the Current River country in the Missouri Ozarks. Mike Milonski and Alan Brohn, both of whom would become assistant directors of the Missouri Conservation Department, mounted an expedition to prove or disprove the existence of the cat.

 

They didn’t have a visual sighting of the animal, but did find a paw print and made a plaster cast of it. Department wildlife biologists agreed that it certainly looked like a mountain lion track. But, echoing the prevailing philosophy of the day, they agreed that Missouri did not have wild mountain lions and if there was a cat present, it probably had been released there by someone possibly disenchanted with it as a pet. The prevailing philosophy for years was that if mountain lions existed in the Missouri wild, one would have been shot by a hunter or, at the very least, captured on a trail cam.

 

More than 30 years later, a motorist (perhaps driving a Mercury Cougar?) Killed a male mountain lion on Highway 54 between the state’s capital, Jefferson City, and Fulton, to the north. Blood tests proved that the cat indeed was a wild, not pet, animal, most likely having originated far to the west—perhaps in the Black Hills of South Dakota . No explanation as to how it came to be in Missouri, but young male animals, looking for territory of their own, often travel long distances to establish their own identity. Evidence that Missouri could and would play host to visiting mountain lions was reinforced when a second lion fell victim to one of Detroit’s finest on a highway in North Kansas City, and a third lion recently succumbed to automotive caticide after being hit by a car on Interstate 44.

 

These are widely divergent geographic locations which would indicate that mountain lions, being reclusive by nature, and while not widely exposed to public view, are indeed a statewide resident.

 

At least one female lion has been among the 74 confirmed mountain lion reports since 1994–and one female, among all those randy male lions certainly raises the possibility of young ones.  But there have been hundreds if not thousands of reported mountain lion sightings and it seems as if every other person who has spent any time in the outdoors claims to have seen a mountain lion—or at least knows someone who has. But what you see is not necessarily what you get. Over the years there have been many supposed sightings of black panthers which, I feel confident in saying, do not exist in the Missouri wild— and I further suspect that the family black Labrador retriever on walkabout has been responsible for most of them.

 

Some reports include having heard a lion screaming in the night. Not to discount them, but raccoons squalling, as they often do, could easily become the wail of a mountain lion to the ears of a listener.

 

Mountain lions, like wolves, spark an immediate and primal fear in people. Both are apex predators (kind of like people). Wolves have been the stuff of legend for hundreds of years, not to mention fairytales like the Big Bad Wolf (or in the case of Archie Campbell’s Spoonerised version of the three terrorized piggies, the Pee Little Thrigs). Every one of the very rare attacks by a mountain lion breeds immediate fear of being assaulted by a ravenous big cat in legions of outdoor enthusiasts. Statistically, any wilderness traveler stands a far better chance of being killed by lightning than he or she does being killed by either a timber wolf or a mountain lion. A mama grizzly bear with cubs is another story entirely but Missouri so far has avoided being invaded by grizzlies. Black bears could be a threat, especially with cubs, but again watch out for the lightning.

 

Not to discount the possibility of a mountain lion attack—last year a Colorado hiker strangled an 80 pound lion after it attacked him. And just recently Arizona wildlife officials shot three mountain lions who apparently had happened upon the body of someone who died in their territory and they scavenged the poor person’s remains. “We do not believe the lions attacked the individual who died there,” said Mark Hart, spokesman for Arizona Game and Fish. “An autopsy will tell us more. But our belief is they were eating the human remains after the fact.”

 

The ubiquitous presence of trail cameras nowadays is behind almost all the confirmed Missouri sightings— it’s hard to argue with a sharp photograph. It’s equally impossible to deny the evidence of a lion carcass, one of which is mounted in the Conservation Department’s Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City.

 

Recently an alleged mountain lion sighting in the heart of Jefferson City dominated discussion on Facebook where the wilder the allegation, the more discussion, often heated and outlandish, proliferates. The sighting was atop a cliff face at the Menard’s store. A woman posted a video of an obvious cat of some sort walking along the top of the cliff, somewhat obscured by grass. She said it was a mountain lion.  The Conservation Department stationed someone at the top of the cliff with a cutout of a common cat and a mountain lion. What the woman had seen was, the Department said, a feral cat (and feral cats are responsible for hundreds of thousands of bird deaths every year).

 

There was an immediate firestorm of comments on Facebook from those who, mostly, claimed to have seen mountain lions to those who accused the Department of some sort of cover-up. Many claim that the Department has lied about the existence of mountain lions in the wild for years, although there is ample discussion about the animal on the Department’s website, and the prevailing official view is that yes, there are mountain lions in the Missouri wild, but no evidence of a breeding population.

 

There have been 74 confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Missouri since 1994 amid thousands  of reported sightings, unconfirmed. Although the confirmed sightings are fewer than 1% of the total reported, the Conservation Department takes mountain lion sightings seriously enough to have formed a mountain lion response team in 1996 more than 20 years ago. And, the Department takes the presence of mountain lions in the state seriously enough to post instructions on its website about what to do if you encounter a lion, panther, catamount, puma (all names for the same critter).

 

Statistically your chances of encountering a mountain lion and definitely your chance of being attacked by one, is less than your chance of being struck by lightning or savaged by an angry dog. According to wildlife experts,  fatal mountain lion attacks have averaged one in every 7 years since 1980 in the United States compared to lightning strikes that kill more than 80 people annually.

 

Yet, the Facebook comments on the alleged sighting in Jefferson City range from casual to hysterical.  One posited that the Conservation Department for reasons unknown is stocking mountain lions. Some years back one of the Western state conservation agencies  suffered allegations that it was parachuting mountain lions into the wild immediately before elk season to drive the game animals deep into the back country so they would be unavailable to hunters. Why the department would do this, considering that elk permits, are a substantial contribution to the department budget, is beyond reason—but then reason rarely stands in the forefront of those who endorse and pass along outlandish rumor.

 

In the case of the alleged Jefferson City mountain lion, the most outlandish accusation was that (given that Missouri is a solidly red Republican state) the lion was part of a stocking plot by the Democrats. No explanation given but I assume that the rumor monger believed the lions are programmed to eat Republicans. The local newspaper, resolutely conservative, has not reported the loss of any of its most ardent readers, some of whom regularly write letters to the editor endorsing whatever the current right-wing conspiracy theory happens to be.

 

As an aside, some years back in a location not far from Menard’s a black bear was treed at a time when Missouri conservationists believed that few if any black bears existed in the state. Black bears actually are featured on the official state symbol, and there now is what appears to be a fairly thriving population of the animals, especially in the Ozarks. They probably are the progeny of bears stocked in northern Arkansas which disrespected the border between the two states.

 

 Similarly, mountain lions have no geographical know how and can leap across a state line with one mighty bound.

 

By the time Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz produced their landmark book “The Wild Mammals of Missouri” the mountain lion was considered an extirpated species in the state. “By 1850 most had disappeared although during the next 75 years occasional individuals were reported in the southern part of the state,” they wrote. “The last one definitely recorded in Missouri was killed in 1927 in the Mississippi Low Land.” The two authors presciently predicted “Pumas are primarily predators of deer and since the deer population has increased greatly in Missouri in recent years, pumas may come back too.”

 

Charlie and Libby said “an adult puma can easily be distinguished from the bobcat.”  Although, apparently not from the feral house cat. Bobcats, although larger than a house cat, are certainly smaller than the mountain lion (puma) and are bobtailed, rather than featuring the readily identifiable long tail of a puma, panther et al. And, bobcats are considered a major predator of wild turkeys in North Missouri—not white tailed deer (or livestock, house pets, and small babies). And none of the cats are notorious for dining on human beings, although anyone who is ever tried to stuff a house cat inside a small carrier for a trip to the vet might disagree.

 

Perhaps it is significant that three of the 15 bronze sculptures created by Charlie Schwartz after his retirement from the department feature a mountain lion. It’s possible that Charlie never saw one of the big cats in person in the Missouri wild but there is no doubt he considered them a valuable subject of his wildlife art. Charlie shared with me an affinity for the unloved of Critterdom— I cherish number one of an edition of 25 of a Charlie Schwartz sculpture featuring a disdainful coyote casually peeing on a sprung leghold trap.

 

Do I believe the Jefferson City woman saw a mountain lion? Almost certainly not. Do I believe there are mountain lions in Missouri? Indisputably. Do I believe there is a breeding population? Possibly. Do I believe they pose a threat to hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts? No. What I do believe is that there  is indisputably a thriving population of people willing to believe the most bizarre rumors and post them on Facebook.

 

No mountain lions were harmed in the production of this blog.

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