McLeansboro Times-Leader

Opinion

December 8, 2011

Are there cougars in Southern Illinois?

During my career with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, I used to mock folks who told me they saw a mountain lion or cougar in Southern Illinois.

We in the IDNR used to think these people had eyesight problems, smoked illegal leafy plants or got into grandpa’s persimmon wine too much. 

But I do not doubt folks anymore.

In November of this year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources put out a press release warning deer hunters to be aware that there were confirmed cougar sightings in central and northern Wisconsin. 

That’s right; a state-issued warning. It’s no lie or hoax; you can check online yourself (simply “google” wisconsin cougar sightings 2011).

During my 27-year IDNR career, I was aware of three confirmed cougar deaths in Illinois:

1. On July 15, 2000, a dead young male cougar was found near railroad tracks in Randolph County.

2. On Dec. 4, 2004, a dead cougar was found by hunters near New Boston in Mercer County. Apparently, this cougar had been shot with an arrow and had escaped from the bow hunter before it died. I recall personally speaking via cell phone to the conservation police officer who was on site with the dead animal.

3. On April 4, 2008, a young male cougar was shot and killed by Chicago police when it was observed in a residential neighborhood on the city’s north side. Earlier that year, a cougar had been confirmed sighted in southern Wisconsin and in several towns north of Chicago; it’s believed that that was the cougar shot by the Chicago cops. It made all the Chicago papers and a few national ones.

Please note that Nos. 1 and 2 were near the Mississippi River; No. 3 is believed to have traveled some of the “green belt” habitat areas along Interstate 294 and possibly the Des Plaines River watershed. Believe it or not, Cook and Lake counties have a lot of green belt habitat areas. 

What’s rather odd is that I do not recall the IDNR saying one word about these instances. Not any comments or press releases or anything. 

I guess if the IDNR keeps quiet about it, the public will just forget and the matter will go away.

My personal opinion is that the IDNR fears it will create a public minipanic and may cause undue public fear if they said anything about these critters. The last thing needed is a group of buffoons out there with their dogs claiming they are going “mountain lion huntin’.” 

I doubt anyone with the IDNR will go “on record” on this issue.

Over the last few years, a small number of cougars have been sighted in Missouri and Iowa; a few have even been killed. Don’t believe me; check for yourself.  

We here in Southern Illinois are blessed with large amounts of wildlife habitat. We have the river corridors along the Mississippi, Ohio, Wabash and Little Wabash rivers, along with numerous smaller steams and waterways. And don’t forget Shawnee National Forest. 

A mountain lion or cougar is an “alpha predator.” One of its primary food sources is deer. We have a few of them around here, too.

A few years ago, I remember picking up my first road-killed bobcat in White County. It made the front page of the Carmi Times. 

Since then, I’ve personally seen four live ones while bow-hunting; many others have also seen bobcats. I wouldn’t say we’re “lousy” with bobcats, but there are more that a few around.

So if you ask me, I believe that one day, someone will either kill a cougar or one will be hit on the road somewhere around here in Southern Illinois. It’s simply inevitable.

Sadly, it will take a dead specimen to prove that they are around. It won’t be an “escaped pet” or a dead one that a trucker picked up in South Dakota and dumped out here for a joke. 

In all likelihood, it will be a 100-pound-plus male wild cougar which is roaming to find new habitat areas. 

I personally had never seen a live or dead cougar in Illinois during my IDNR career. If I come across a dead cougar around here, I’m going to keep it and get a full body mount of it. 

I will allow the IDNR to take DNA and hair samples, but they aren’t getting the whole thing.

I know that a CPO will probably try to bluff me into giving it up, but I know better. They can’t legally force me to turn it over to them. 

Plus, I know that if I did give it up, it would probably simply “disappear” just like the three dead ones I mentioned earlier in this article.

Full disclosure: Dr. Lars Gentry says my eyesight is fine; I will “pee” in a cup to prove I do not smoke that green leafy material; and I don’t drink too much of the “homebrew” which Eddie and I make on occasion.

• Rich Gurka is a resident of White County and retired as a conservation police officer with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

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