Friday, December 29, 2006

Do wild cougars exist in Southern Illinois?

Brooks Ware, NewsChannel 6

Wildlife officials in Illinois say cougars don't exist in the state, but an independent researcher says sightings are on the rise and the big cats are becoming more aggressive. The claim comes on the heels of two confirmed cougar sightings in our region.

Virgil Smith started his cougar research group, Shadows of the Shawnee, after his son spotted one nearly ten years ago. Smith says cougar sightings in southern Illinois have increased drastically over the past two months, with calls coming in daily.

Smith took a plaster cast of a paw print just south of Harrisburg last weekend. He believes the print belongs to a big cat weighing more than 120 pounds. "It was seen by the person. We found it, tracked it and made the plaster cast of it."

But, Smith doesn't think the print came from a typical tan cougar. He believes it belongs to a black cat, sightings he says have become more frequent. "They're starting to establish a very negative and aggressive behavior. In most cases, there's no fear of humans, which is obviously a major concern."

And, this past May, Kristi Stepter of Massac County says she saw a large grey cat in her backyard. "You automatically know it's a big cat because of the way it walks."

Fish and Wildlife officials have only confirmed two cougar sightings in Illinois. And, officials in Kentucky say there's no hard evidence cougars are living there. But, conservationists in Missouri are beginning to believe otherwise.

A motion activated camera recorded a cougar December 7th near Current River in Missouri, the second confirmed spotting in the area this month. The Missouri Department of Conservation believes the big cats are filtering in from the west and could end up in west Kentucky and southern Illinois.

Dave Hamilton, Missouri Department of Conservation, "The Missouri River and the Mississippi River aren't barriers for a mountain lion. They are capable swimmers. Bobcats and mountain lions regularly cross bodies of water."

Wildlife officials in Illinois and Kentucky say they need a body part, hair or pictures to prove the presence of a cougar. To report a sighting to Shadows of the Shawnee, call (618)273-9394. content_id=f6ef9031-2fcd-4d11-aaff-c52fe7206f1c

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