On Outdoors: Cougar sightings increase
By Jim Hagerty
The presence of cougars, or mountain lions, in the Midwest has been shrouded with as much lore and speculation as the existence of ghosts. Confirmed sightings of the large cats are not widely reported. Even the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) said in a statement last year that the cats are likely not in Illinois. That was about two months before Roscoe Village police shot and killed one in April. Before 2008, there were two confirmed accounts of dead cougars in 2000 and 2004. Before that, the last official confirmation in Illinois was in 1862.
In the last decade, Midwestern residents have reported seeing cougars in various locations. Some mistake other animals, while those familiar with them are able to identify them very quickly.
In recent years, a business owner in Iron Mountain, Mich., reported seeing a cougar cross a main street while she exited her building. With the absence of a photo or physical evidence, her story was written off by officials as a case of mistaken identity. The report did spark a succession of sightings, which have been ample for decades in the Upper Peninsula.
A Wisconsin man recently reported seeing a cougar walking along a country road before it disappeared into a wooded area. Every now and then, someone will allege seeing a mother cat tending to a litter of kittens. Again, rarely do such reports come with proof. They do, however, tend to add as much excitement as Big Foot sightings or haunted cemeteries.
Earlier this month, DNR officials in Michigan finally got their chance to verify that at least one cougar is in the eastern part of the Upper Peninsula. The cat was photographed near Bruce Township, and tracks were later found, preserved and turned over to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for analysis.
In Galesburg, Ill., four people claimed they saw two cats. Perry McFarland said he saw a cougar through a pair of binoculars in the early morning hours of Nov. 5. The cat was about 600 feet from his sunroom. His wife then spotted the second cat. McFarland’s neighbors, Robin and Stephen Podwojski, along with their 13-year-old son, allege they, too, saw the same two cougars. Officials aren’t taking the report as seriously as they are in Michigan. The existence of two cougars in the same vicinity is extremely rare, as the cats are solitary and almost never travel in pairs, even during the mating season.
Last year—also in Chicago—a park was temporarily closed after an alleged cougar was sighted on the grounds. Nothing was found.
When four photographs of a cat near an Illinois residence surfaced in 2008, IDNR representatives were quick to investigate the report. It was discovered the photos, although authentic, were actually taken in Wyoming, which has a substantial cougar population. According to DNR officials, they are extremely rare in Illinois. With the Roscoe Village kill the most substantial proof of late, it seems that the cats do, in fact, make their way here. The cougar shot was a 150-pound male.
Cougars are solitary predators known to silently stalk and ambush prey. Deer and elk are preferred fare; however, they are also known to eat rabbits and other small animals. While attacks on humans are few and far between (only 20 people have been killed in North America since 1890), they do occur in areas where human and feline populations overlap or when a cat faces starvation. Small children are at the greatest risk of being attacked.
Although not officially classified as nocturnal, cougars typically hunt at dawn and early evening. Daytime sightings are usually uneventful. Cats are often seen wandering, mostly to establish territories of their own and find shelter. Cougars tend to stay clear of humans and other animals. They are masterful tree-climbers and often stay hidden for extended periods, adding to their elusiveness.
Wildlife and park officials do warn hikers to take precautions in known cougar habitats. This includes banging a stick along the brush while walking, tossing rocks—even talking loudly or singing. If a cat appears aggressive, deterring it is possible by waving the arms, shouting and throwing objects in its direction. A cougar will usually not attack anything that appears to be a threat.
Outdoors news and photos can be sent directly to Jim Hagerty at firstname.lastname@example.org. Glossies and hard-copy press kits can be mailed or delivered to The Rock River Times’ office at 128 N. Church St., Rockford, IL 61101. Jim can be reached at (815) 964-9767.
From the November 18-24, 2009 issue
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