Sunday, February 10, 2008

Mountain lions in Missouri

A few weeks ago, following a managed deer hunt at a nearby Conservation Area, a colleague was approached by a hunter. The hunter asked, casually, "what kind of big cats y'all got around here?" My colleague naturally replied "bobcats," a very common animal in Missouri. "Can a bobcat have a long tail and the same fur color as a deer?" No, sir, you actually saw a mountain lion. The hunter probably knew all along that he had seen a mountain lion (and her two cubs trailing behind), but the official stance of my sister agency is that mountain lions no longer live in Missouri. They were extirpated in the late 1920s. The hunter's sighting chalks up a new mammal for the Conservation Area's list.

Common in the Midwest presettlement, mountain lions occupied dry, rocky areas and dense thickets found mostly in the bottomlands. They were deemed a threat to human habitation and livestock, and were summarily shot by early settlers. In 1927, the last mountain lion (on record) was killed. Granted, it's probably just as well that they were all killed, since their primary food source, deer, were also almost extirpated from the state around the same time.

Mountain lions tend to be nocturnal and crepuscular animals, which explains why they are not seen very often. The average range for a female is 50-75 square miles, for a male, 90-several hundred square miles. They subsist primarily on deer, often killing one deer a week. Their presence in Missouri bodes well for our woodlands, which are horribly overbrowsed by a deer population hardly kept in check by natural predators and hunters. An entire population of ginseng, for example, was wiped out by deer in two years, with the only plant remaining in the area fenced off as a control plot in a research project dealing with deer browse preferences.

Nevertheless, the official line from my sister agency is that "based on considerations of human safety and risk to livestock, it is undesirable to have a breeding population of mountain lions in Missouri." The hundreds of sightings, the road kills, the tracks and scat, are all investigated by their task force which was designed to determine breeding populations. Mountain lions remain endangered in the state even today, just shy of the ranking of "extirpated" a couple of years ago. Now that they have been found at Lake of the Ozarks, Kansas City, Fulton and everywhere in between, the agency doesn't want to announce that they are alive and well in the state. Officially, these mountain lions are mere transients, pushed out of their native range by territorial males and habitat destruction.

So far, no cattle rancher or homeowner has killed a mountain lion (and reported it to the agency). The official line is that if the animal is causing a direct threat to livestock or domestic animals, the mountain lion can be legally killed and the carcass turned over to the agency. I don't know how many more sightings will have to occur before we announce that we have mountain lions in Missouri. Regardless, any natural predator that can keep deer in check as they are squeezed out of the woods to make way for more urbanization is a welcome predator. We've managed to alter the landscape so dramatically and resolutely that, really, any natural process, be it fire, mountain lions, ice storms, are a welcome occurrence.

1 comment:

Nickelplate said...

I know of someone who killed one near my land. He was a worker for a large cattle ranching company (now defunct).
I was so upset when he told me.