Missourians, meet your new neighbors: mountain lions.
The big cats, found mostly in Florida and the West and known variously as panthers, pumas and cougars, went extinct in Missouri in the 1920s from overhunting and trapping.
Almost a century later, as the number of reports has increased and a female sighting was confirmed, mountain lions are flirting with a comeback. This spring, a mountain lion was confirmed in Shannon County in southern Missouri from genetic material left behind near an elk it had killed. The material matched a mountain lion that had been trapped in 2012, making it the first to have been identified twice in the state.
There’s no evidence of a permanent breeding population yet, but experts say it's likely just a matter of time.
“Mountain lion populations are expanding in the Western U.S. and are slowly but steadily moving eastward,” said University of Missouri wildlife biology researcher Matthew Gompper. “We’re in the very early stages of mountain lion populations settling into the region.”
Mountain lions are reclusive, nearly silent and primarily nocturnal, but since the ‘90s, there have been thousands of reported sightings in Missouri. Only 72 sightings — less than 1 percent of the total — have been officially confirmed because of a high standard of evidence required by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The department established a "mountain lion response team" shortly after two incidents in the state: In 1994, two Missouri hunters were fined after killing a mountain lion and taking a photo of themselves with it, and in 1996, an employee from the Conservation Department recorded video of a lion with a deer carcass.
The team receives hundreds of reports annually, said co-leader Alan Leary, and in recent years, the number of reports has accelerated. Mountain lion sightings are confirmed only if there are tracks, a body or a photo.
“A lot of them we’ll never know for sure,” he said.
In 2010, a man in Platte County returned from a hunting trip and saw a mountain lion in his yard. He took photos and sent them to Tood Meese, another member of the response team.
"That's a bleeping mountain lion," Meese responded. He went to the man's yard to investigate, and there were claw marks, droppings and hair.
Missourians are often reluctant to report sightings because they doubt they saw what they thought they saw, Leary said. When the team confirms a mountain lion in an area, neighbors often begin to report their own sightings.
“A lot of people call in and say, ‘Now, don’t think I’m crazy, but …’ ” Leary said.
Members of the team went through training in western states where there are established cougar populations, Meese said.
“I was fortunate enough to go to the Black Hills, and they have more cats than you can shake a stick at," he said.
Most of the team’s confirmations come from pictures captured on trail cameras, but that's not always as straightforward as it may sound.
An adult male cougar can weigh more than 200 pounds, bobcats typically less than 25 pounds and house cats less than 10, but people get them mixed up.
If a bobcat — or even a house cat — is poorly lit or far away from the photographer, it can be easy to mistake it for a mountain lion, Leary said. The response team has cardboard cutouts for each animal and uses them after receiving a photo to re-enact the sighting and see whether the scale is correct.
Even experts can make mistakes: Meese said he took a photo of what he thought was a mountain lion before his involvement with the response team. After he was on the team, he went back and looked at the pictures. He realized it had actually been a large bobcat.
"When you see some of the pictures, you say maybe, but when you really look, it’s a bobcat," Meese said. “Why do people’s minds go to the least obvious thing first, when there’s more obvious things here?"
Dog tracks are another common culprit for mistaken identity, as they can look suspiciously like those belonging to mountain lions. Just remember: If you can see the nail marks beyond the paws, it's a dog.
The big cats can range hundreds of miles. Males, especially, stray far from home when there are a lot of other mountain lions near and food gets scarce. The males search for new areas with lots of prey, and after a lag time, females follow, Gompper said. That’s where Missouri is now.
The two closest populations of mountain lions are Texas and South Dakota. The team sends DNA to Colorado for testing when a sample is recovered in the state, and analysis has shown the cougars are coming mostly from Wyoming and the Black Hills in South Dakota.
Kansas also has received thousands of reports of mountain lions but has confirmed far fewer than Missouri has.
Reports of mountain lions aren’t uncommon in Missouri, as they were 20 years ago, Gompper said. A female was confirmed in the state in 2016, demonstrating that a permanent breeding population is likely imminent, but it doesn't appear to have happened yet.
Some Missourians keep cougars as pets, Meese said, including meth dealers who use them as guard animals.
If a female is released into the wild or escapes, that could be the catalyst to starting a permanent population.
"All we’re waiting for is a female,” Meese said. "What’s probably going to happen is somebody’s going to release one because they can’t deal with it anymore. ... And then the males will lock up that territory and we’re established.”
But even if there are more mountain lions running around, Missourians shouldn't worry about attacks, both Gompper and Meese said.
“The likelihood of having a negative interaction with a mountain lion is far, far smaller than the likelihood of having a negative interaction with something like a domestic dog,” Gompper said. “It’s one of those rare events that when it occurs, it gets a great deal of attention, but it shouldn’t be something that the general public is concerned about.”
On average, a mountain lion kills a person in the United States once every seven years, according to the Conservation Department. Killings of farm animals are far more common in areas with the big cats, but Gompper said Missourians shouldn’t be too concerned about that, either.
“There’s enough deer and raccoons floating around that lions are not going out of their way to take anybody’s livestock,” he said.
As for dogs, Meese said, they can take care of themselves.
"If the dog has any spunk at all, it’ll put a cat up a tree and hold it there," he said. He described a time in South Dakota where he saw a 5-pound dog bark a cougar into submission.
“It’s kind of like the old cartoons when the dog barks the cat jumps — well, that’s how they are.”
If you've encountered a mountain lion, contact the mountain lion response team at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Department of Conservation at 573-522-4115.