Photo by Justin Shoemaker/USFWS.
A Tale of Two Big Cats: What We Learned About the Mountain Lions in Illinois in 2022
Sightings of mountain lions (Puma concolor) are rare now in Illinois, but historically they were one of the top predators of deer and other game in the prairie state. Mountain lions were eliminated from the state before 1870 due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. While there have been recent confirmed sightings, currently there is no evidence of resident breeding populations of mountain lion in Illinois. Since 2002, there have been eight confirmed occurrences of mountain lions in Illinois. This includes two male mountain lions that separately made their way to Illinois in 2022. And as their populations increase in South Dakota, Nebraska, and the Rocky Mountain states, it is likely that individual mountain lions will continue to disperse through Illinois looking for new territories.
Will these large predators find suitable habitat when they reach Illinois? A study conducted at the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University (SIU) found that less than seven percent of land cover in Illinois provides suitable habitat for mountain lions, and none of that is contiguous habitat.
That second point is noteworthy, since large expanses of suitable habitat are more likely to support breeding populations of large carnivores. The SIU researchers concluded that Illinois can provide “stopover habitat” for large carnivores such as mountain lions, gray wolves, and black bears, but that expanses of suitable habitat to support breeding populations are not plentiful.
Of course, mountain lions dispersing to new areas don’t know what lies ahead of them in their search for potential mates and good hunting grounds. Here is what biologists know about the two mountain lions that entered Illinois in 2022.
On September 28, 2022, a mountain lion was captured on a trail camera on private property in Whiteside County and the photo evidence was later confirmed in the field by wildlife biologists. Then on October 16, 2022, a mountain lion was struck and killed by a vehicle on Interstate 88 in DeKalb County. Given the proximity of the two locations, just 70 miles apart, it is thought that it was likely the same animal. Although it cannot be confirmed, this mountain lion may also have been the same animal that Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologists had been monitoring moving south through Wisconsin during the summer and fall of 2022.
At the time, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) reported that the mountain lion was transferred by the Illinois State Police to an IDNR Wildlife Biologist and then delivered to the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana (UIUC) for a full necropsy. The UIUC necropsy results found that the mountain lion was a male in poor condition. Its stomach was empty, and it had pneumonia as well as parasites.
DNA was also collected and submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station for analysis. The genetic analysis was recently completed and provides valuable information to biologists about the animal, its place of origin, and insight into the exploratory movements of mountain lions across the Midwest. Results of the DNA analysis show that this mountain lion was a new individual that had not previously been documented or represented in the mountain lion genetic reference database. The USDA lab conducted assignment tests, which are probabilities that an animal is from a particular population based on gene frequencies and indicates how it relates to other sampled individuals from a particular area or population.
The genotype from this mountain lion was determined to have a low likelihood of being from any of the sampled reference populations. The USDA lab database includes over 3,000 samples from mountain lion populations in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Oregon, and Florida. The lab does not have samples from other areas with known mountain lion populations, including Washington, California, Nevada, Utah, or Mexico and Canada. Since this mountain lion did not match any of the known populations in the database, it could have been from one of the states or countries not represented in the database. Another possibility is that the mountain lion was from one of the states with samples in the database but came from a previously unsampled population. Mountain lions travel great distances and breed throughout their range, so gene frequencies throughout a particular state are likely similar. For now, it seems that this mountain lion’s origin story will remain a mystery.
Unlike the first mountain lion, the origin of the second mountain lion that moved through Illinois last fall is known. In October 2022, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) informed the IDNR that a mountain lion that NGPC was tracking was within the city limits of Springfield, Illinois. The NGPC had attached a GPS collar to that mountain lion in November 2021 as part of an ongoing research project on their mountain lion population. USDA Wildlife Biologists and IDNR Wildlife Biologists and Conservation Police Officers monitored the mountain lion’s movement patterns for two days as it moved through a wooded area on the edge of the city. On the third morning, the mountain lion moved into a densely populated portion of the city and was found to be in a small backyard surrounded by homes, an apartment complex, and busy streets.
A tough decision had to be made. The mission of the IDNR is “To manage, conserve and protect Illinois’ natural, recreational and cultural resources, further the public’s understanding and appreciation of those resources, and promote the education, science and public safety of Illinois’ natural resources for present and future generations.” The question facing the biologists was: What is the best way to manage and protect a large carnivore that is on the move while also educating people and protecting public safety? There is not a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to such a question.
In this case, it was determined that, given its proximity to an urban area, the mountain lion may have posed a potential threat to people, and the difficult decision was made to capture and relocate the mountain lion. The mountain lion was immobilized by staff from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services and sent to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana. The male, known as NE 110 or the Nebraska/Illinois cougar, received veterinary care and was found to be in good condition.
The tale does not end there of course. Obviously, managing large carnivores like mountain lions is more complicated than managing other species of wildlife. Knowing when and where large carnivores travel across the state will allow wildlife managers to proactively address potential human-carnivore conflicts. To assist with that, the IDNR requests that the public report mountain lion sightings in Illinois.
It is crucial that sightings are reported as soon as possible. Mountain lions can travel long distances in a short amount of time, and weather events can quickly degrade evidence of their presence such as tracks or scat. Wildlife biologists attempt to confirm sightings of large carnivores received from the public, and to do so they require reviewable evidence. A visual sighting alone is not enough. Confirmed sightings must be verified by the presence of the animal (in the case of a roadkill for example) or unambiguous game camera images, videos or photos, followed up by a site visit by wildlife biologists to verify location.
When documenting tracks or other signs, it is important to photograph individual tracks as well as groups of tracks. Including a ruler, measuring tape, or an object of standard size (e.g., quarter, business card) in the pictures aid in determination of track size. Including images of the wider area where the tracks were found as well as other local features that can be located if the tracks are compromised by weather is also useful.
Mountain lions are elusive predators, so most sightings last only a few seconds. In Illinois, domestic dogs, domestic cats, and bobcats (Lynx rufus) are animals commonly misidentified as mountain lions. Large dog tracks are often misidentified as mountain lion tracks, but there are several key differences. Cats, including mountain lions, walk with their claws retracted, so claw marks will not appear in their tracks. The other differences are highlighted in this graphic of a mountain lion track and a dog track.
Mountain lions have been protected in Illinois since 2015, when SB3049 amended the Illinois Wildlife Code by adding mountain lions, black bears and gray wolves to the list of protected species. Because they are protected, mountain lions may not legally be hunted, killed, or harassed unless there is an imminent threat to people or property. Should you see a mountain lion on your property, and you feel that you or your property is being threatened, contact the IDNR to learn about the options available to address potential threats. The IDNR may assist you with control measures.
We should expect dispersing male mountain lions to continue to traverse through Illinois in the future, though biologists expect it to be well into the future before a breeding female establishes a permanent home range in Illinois. This is because female mountain lions rarely disperse long distances in search of new quality habitat or mates.
To learn more about mountain lions, including their basic natural history as well as updated information on confirmed mountain lion sightings, visit the mountain lion page at Wildlife Illinois.
Laura Kammin is a Natural Resources Specialist with the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. She formerly held positions at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, University of Illinois Extension, Prairie Rivers Network, and the Illinois Natural History Survey. She received her master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Scott F. Beckerman received B.S. and M.S. degrees in Fisheries and Wildlife Management from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He has been helping people resolve conflicts with wildlife since the late 1980s and has been working with the USDA APHIS Wildlife Services program as a wildlife biologist in Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and California since 1992. Scott has been the State Director of the Wildlife Services program in Illinois since 2006.
Dakota Bird received a B.S. degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Management from the University of Tennessee. He has held various Large Carnivore and Wildlife Damage Management positions which include Wolf Technician in Minnesota (USGS), Domestic Sheep Protection/Urban Wildlife Specialist in Arizona (USDA WS), and Black Bear Management in Tennessee (NPS) and Wisconsin (USDA WS). Currently, he is a Wildlife Biologist for USDA APHIS Wildlife Services Illinois Program (WS IL) where his primary duty is to serve as the liaison between WS IL and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to ensure collaboration between the two agencies when it pertains to Large Carnivores and Chronic Wasting Disease.