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Health, Science, Environment

Mountain lion, black bear, wolf sightings on the rise in Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2012 - A Dec. 12 report of a mountain lion in DeKalb County capped off what has been a big year for mountain lion sightings in Missouri.

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, the big cat was sighted by a motion-activated trail camera on private land in the county near the Nebraska and Iowa border. It is the 10th confirmed sighting this year in Missouri, the sixth since September.

In 2011, the Department of Conservation confirmed 14 sightings.

Rex Martensen of the department’s mountain lion response team said the big cats are moving in from Western states.

“Mountain lion populations in Western states, primarily in South Dakota, are increasing and doing well,” he said. “And those mountain lions, especially the males, are dispersing out of the home range and seeking new territory.”

Mountain lions are native to Missouri but were largely hunted or forced out during the state’s development. Prior to the establishment of the mountain lion response team in 1996, the last confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Missouri was in the early 20th century.

Since 1996, there have been 36 confirmed mountain lion sightings in Missouri, 24 of which were documented in the past two years.

“Males are big time travelers; they can move over large geographies in short periods of time,” Martensen said. “They’re looking for new territory, looking for females. When they don’t find what they’re looking for, they keep moving.”

Martensen said the department has not been able to confirm any female mountain lions in Missouri. All those that have been shot or captured have been young males, and there is no documented breeding population in the state.

The last confirmed sighting in the St. Louis area was in 2011, when a motion-activated game camera snapped a picture of a lion in Chesterfield. (Click here to see the mountain lion report.)

Martensen said it is also possible that the proliferation of those low-cost, motion-activated cameras are boosting sightings. More cameras means more pictures, sometimes probably of the same animal.

“There’s a good chance that some of these are the same cat,” he said. “We don’t have a population of mountain lions in Missouri; we have these individuals that show up, and they’re showing up a little more frequently.”

Mountain lions in Missouri generally pose little to no threat to humans. It is illegal to kill a mountain lion, unless it is attacking a person or damaging property.

There have been no reported cases of mountain lions attacking humans in Missouri. Martensen said the response team has received reports of the cats attacking livestock, but these claims have never been confirmed.

“These mountain lions are just roaming around randomly, and they’re just going to run into a town eventually,” Martensen said. “I think mountain lions, by nature, when they run into an urban area, it’s by accident.”

Mountain lions have been sighted in other states, as well. In 2011, a lion made national news when it was killed in Connecticut. DNA testing revealed that the animal had walked from South Dakota.

Like mountain lions, black bears and timber wolves were also once native to Missouri. They were hunted or driven completely out of the state but also have been making a comeback.

Black bears were re-introduced into Arkansas in the mid-20th century and have been making their way into Missouri since the 1980s. Today, Martensen estimates the state has about 300 bears.

The Department of Conservation is partnering with Mississippi State University to determine just how large Missouri’s black bear population is.

Jeff Beringer, a biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said there also was probably a small population of bears in Missouri before Arkansas began its program.

“Those two things combined created a situation for bears that was favorable,” he said.

Beringer expects the black bear population in the state to continue growing. He said the state has 2.9 million acres of public land that is suitable habitat for the animals, but they will likely stay south of the Missouri River. (Click here for the bear report.)

There are occasionally sightings of wolves in Missouri, but like mountain lions, there is no documented breeding population. In November, the department received a specimen that had been shot in Howard County. DNA testing is being done to determine if the animal is a timber wolf from the Great Lakes region.

“It’s kind of like mountain lions. They’re male animals dispersing from areas where there are [abundant] populations,” Beringer said. “I would consider it a rare event.”

Both Martensen and Beringer said that the animals pose little risk to humans, and there have been no documented cases of any major damage to person or property.

“Your risk of injury from any of those species is extremely rare,” Beringer said. “They tend to want to be left alone, and folks just need to use common sense if they do encounter one.”

Wolf sightings in Missouri have been largely confined to the north. Black bears are mostly found south of the Missouri River. Mountain lions, while spotted throughout the state, have been seen more in the south than other areas.

If Missouri has a “mountain lion country,” Martensen said, it’s in the Ozarks.

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