By MATT CAMPBELL
The Kansas City Star
After years of reported sightings, Kansas wildlife officials last fall finally confirmed the presence of a live mountain lion in the state.
Now, a state legislator wants to make it legal to hunt them.
Conservationists say that is just silly, or worse. There certainly are mountain lions — also called cougars — in Kansas and Missouri. But wildlife experts say their numbers are few and they should be left alone.
Still, Rep. Mitch Holmes, a Republican from west-central Kansas cattle country, says his constituents are concerned for their own safety and that of their animals. Ranchers report their livestock get spooked and won’t come in for water. Horse owners find their animals injured.
“A constituent of mine heard something on the front porch and there was her dog, nose to nose with a cougar,” he said.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture does not record livestock attacks by mountain lions, but has not heard of any, either, said Deputy Secretary Constantine Cotsoradis.
Holmes introduced a bill to allow people to hunt mountain lions without a license, but that was opposed as unnecessary by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. The bill would not have accomplished what Holmes wanted, anyway, so he now plans to directly ask the Wildlife and Parks Commission to create a mountain lion-hunting season.
That would allow trophy hunters to seek out the elusive creatures that were once native to the Great Plains, but were eradicated in the 19th century. Now they are coming back in some areas.
It now is illegal in Kansas and Missouri to hunt mountain lions. But in both states it is permissible to shoot one that is threatening humans or their animals. Keeping the carcass or pelt, however, is illegal.
There have for years been numerous reports of mountain lion sightings in both states, although they are not easy to verify. Officials say many people mistake the smaller bobcat, or dogs, for mountain lions. Dog tracks also are often mistaken for mountain lion tracks. Cougar prints generally do not have claw marks.
But the Missouri Department of Conservation has confirmed at least 10 mountain lions in the state in recent years. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks last fall confirmed a live mountain lion sighting by a hunter in the northwestern part of the state.
A man in south-central Kansas was cited for killing a mountain lion in 2007 and sending the pelt to a taxidermist. Before that, the last documented case of a mountain lion in Kansas was in 1904.
Officials say there is no evidence of breeding populations of mountain lions in Kansas or Missouri. The animals there are most likely transient young males, they say.
“At any one time we may be talking about single digits (of mountain lions) in a state that is 52 million acres in size,” said Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas. “We actually should be pleased that this part of our natural wildlife heritage may be present to some degree, and not view it as a problem.”
Mountain lions are secretive and prefer brushy, wooded and hilly areas with streams. They feed on deer, turkeys and raccoons. They generally avoid humans, but there have been cases of attack. A St. Joseph native was killed by a cougar in 2004 while mountain biking in California. The same animal is thought to be responsible for a nonfatal attack on another biker at about the same time.
Even when they don’t attack, mountain lions sometimes get too close to civilization. One was struck by a motorist near Interstate 35 and Parvin Road in the Northland in 2002. Its carcass is now stuffed and on display at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Discovery Center at 4750 Troost Ave.
The fact that there are not more roadkills is further evidence of the relative scarcity of mountain lions in Kansas or Missouri, officials say.
Other states to the north and west have populations of mountain lions that are large enough to sustain managed hunts. For example, there may be as many as 200 mountain lions in the Black Hills of South Dakota which, Klataske noted, draw millions of tourists a year with no serious encounters.
Matt Peek, a research biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, said the impact of a hunting season for mountain lions would probably be minimal because of the scarcity of the animals in Kansas.
But that means there is room enough for people, livestock and a few mountain lions, Klataske said.
“Just to kill them off is insanity,” he said. “Most Americans think African countries should preserve cheetahs and other wild cats. Why shouldn’t we do the same thing in this country?”
WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE?
Mountain lions are larger than bobcats. A male weighs 140 to 160 pounds, while a female weighs 90 to 110 pounds.
They are slender with short fur, a small head and small, rounded ears that are not tufted. They have long, heavy tails that usually hang down next to the hind legs.