Saturday, October 24, 2009

Kansas wildlife biologists confirm mountain lion sighting


The Wichita Eagle


After more than a century of rumors of mountain lions in Kansas, state wildlife biologists confirmed this week that a live mountain lion has been found in Kansas.

"We have literally dozens and hundreds of mountain lion sightings turned in to us," said Mike Miller, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks spokesman. "Usually the pictures are so blurry, you can't see any detail."

On Oct. 12, a man hunting in northwest WaKeeney in Trego County made not only a discovery, but history, too. The man snapped photos of what this week became the first verified, live mountain lion in Kansas since 1904.

"We don't know the origins of the animal, but we know this is legitimate," Miller said. "Pictures have been verified."

Kansas wildlife officials said the mountain lion was photographed after the animal walked into a pile of corn that was near a tree stand occupied by a deer hunter.

The hunter grabbed his camera and took multiple photos. The mountain lion encounter is believed to have lasted less than a minute.

"They could live here year round. We don't know," Miller said. "But this is the first photograph that we have seen that we can verify and say that is a mountain lion."

This is the second mountain lion to be found in Kansas since 1904, but the first live one.

In November 2007, a young, male mountain lion was shot by a landowner in Barber County. Kansas Wildlife said it is illegal to hunt mountain lions because they are classified as a protected animal. The only exception is if the animal is on private property and poses a threat to the landowner.

Mark Downing of the Cougar Network, a nonprofit organization based in Colorado dedicated to studying cougars, said mountain lions are not often found in Kansas because the open prairie is not good habitat for the animal.

"Mountain lions need three things: cover, prey and water," Downing said. "There isn't enough of that in Kansas."

Charles Cope, a state wildlife biologist, said there may not be many mountain lions living in Kansas, but there may be some traveling through.

"Nebraska has reported 30 to 35 sightings this year," Cope said. "The thing is that they'll cover anywhere from 25 square miles up to 300 square miles on their home range. They travel huge distances. One in Nebraska could be the one in Kansas."

Downing said there is a possibility that mountain lions could live near wooded river corridors in Kansas.

No matter how many people believe that a population of mountain lions exist in Kansas, it has never been officially confirmed, Downing said.

"A population cannot go undetected," Downing said. "There would be roadkill and other sightings and we have never had documentation of this happening in Kansas."

Miller said he doesn't expect the excitement to go past the releasing of photos, but he is glad Kansas Wildlife was able to confirm the sighting.

"When something like this gets publicity, a lot of people are going to say, 'I told you so,' " Miller said. "All we're going to say is this is the first verified, live mountain lion in the state."

Downing took his first look at the photo of the confirmed mountain lion on Tuesday afternoon. It took him only a few seconds to verify what Kansas Wildlife has already confirmed.

"That tail definitely looks like a classic mountain lion," Downing said.

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