Released: October 18, 2002
Are Midwest Mountain Lions Real Puma on the Prairie?
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Puma (aka mountain lions, cougars, panthers) can and have killed pets and humans. The Newkirk, Okla., kennel owner and Kansas City, Mo., motorist who each had an up-close encounter with puma this month had good reason for being scared. In fact, the Oklahoman has four stitch-closed gashes to prove the point.
The big cats’ natural habits make such contacts rare, even in known puma territory, said Charles Lee, Kansas State University’s wildlife damage control specialist.
For most of the 20th century, scientists thought U.S. puma ranged no further east than Texas and Colorado. Their theory: Hunting and human population spread had made native puma extinct from Kansas to the East Coast.
That didn’t stop some "easterners" from believing a few of the big cats were and are still around, Lee said. After all, Colorado has enough for a yearly mountain-lion hunting season. Plus, for more than a decade, wildlife officials have been documenting the occasional free-range puma in the states that border Kansas on the north, east and south.
With the latest Oklahoma and Missouri encounters, however, proof of puma activity has arrived within miles of Kansas state lines. So, Lee is beginning to think residents would do well to be watchful – especially if they plan to go hunting, camping or hiking this fall.
He’s also asking Kansans to report all sightings from as far back as five years ago. This includes their seeing such "sign" as paw prints. (See Fig. 1.) He hopes this kind of statewide record on file with K-State Research and Extension will provide scientific clues, if not proof of puma presence or absence.
Kansans can call in reports to Lee at 785-532-5734 or to Audrey Maley, research assistant with the Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, at 785-532-6070.
The wildlife specialist said he’d love to see puma in the wild. The sleek, brownish-tan cats with their distinctive black-and-white face markings are "arguably our most magnificent native predator."
But Lee continues to feel more cautious than optimistic ... or worried. He’s been checking reported sightings for years. He’s never found so much as a track in Kansas.
Puma once lived across all of North America and most of Central and South America, Lee said. In the west, they still range from Alaska to the Straits of Magellan.
The puma now being found east of Texas and Colorado may not be from a wild population, he said. If nothing else, those documented in the recent past have often behaved like escapees from an exotic animal farm or private "zoo."
In the wild, puma usually stay away from populated areas. They don’t like being close to human habitation, he explained. They prefer deer as food. They need miles of hunting territory and get nervous when they can’t remain unseen.
Except for that, however, puma may be the Western Hemisphere’s most "flexible" mammal. They’re equally at home in mountains, canyon lands, woods, swamps, pampas and brush. So, they might be expanding territory, especially since the nation’s deer herds have been staging their own expansion.
"I hope people will call in with the date and fairly exact location of their Kansas sightings, to help us gain a better idea of what’s going on. Maybe there is such a thing as puma back on the prairie," Lee said.
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.
Charles Lee is at 785-532-5734