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Released: October 18, 2002

(NOTE TO EDITOR: Line art showing how to identify puma tracks and differentiate them from coyote and dog tracks is available for downloading at http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/news/sty/2002/puma_tracks.)

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.

A Track Is a Track,
Is a Track

MANHATTAN, Kan. – For Kansans who believe they’ve found a puma paw print, Kansas State University wildlife specialist Charles Lee provides these pointers:

* Depending on species, dog paw prints can be larger than a puma’s (an average 3-plus inches across for adults) or smaller than a coyote’s or bobcat’s (about 2 inches for adults).

* When a puma kitten is old enough to travel alone, its paws already are larger than a bobcat’s

* Puma, bobcats, dogs and coyotes all have four toes and a heel pad on each foot. But the cats usually retract their claws for walking. Dogs and coyotes leave tracks that include blunt nail marks.

* The toes on each bobcat or puma paw can vary in size and shape. But the part of each heel pad that’s next to the toes always has two small lobes that make it look almost squared off. The part to the rear of each heel pad (and paw) always has three distinct lobes – which show up in tracks as outward bumps, separated by dents.

* Dogs and coyotes have fairly symmetrical paws. One-half of a print looks about like the other half. A whole-paw print looks much like the other three paws’ prints. All tracks include a heel pad that looks much like a rounded triangle – one lobe near the toes and two almost undented lobes to the rear.

* Puma have two paw sizes. The front are noticeably larger than the rear. As they walk, puma often place their back paws in all or part of their front paw prints, causing overlapping.

* Puma rarely move faster than a clean, straight-line walk. Dogs often trot, stirring up dust and traveling without any definite direction.

"If you find what appears to be the real thing, remember how quickly weather can erode or erase tracks," Lee said. "Take a photo, if you can. Then cover the paw print with a bucket and call a wildlife official to come make an assessment. Or, if that’s not possible, make a plaster cast and get it to an official.

"You could be providing the first documentation of a Kansas puma since 1904."

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.

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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.

Story by:
Kathleen Ward, Communications Specialist
kward@oznet.ksu.edu
K-State Research& Extension News

Additional Information:
Charles Lee is at 785-532-5734