The Status of Cougars in Illinois
Because of its wide range, the mountain lion (Puma concolor) is a cat of many names, known commonly as puma, panther or cougar. No matter what it is called, its appearance is distinctive—a tan coat with a white or cream-colored chin; small, rounded ears, the backs of which are solid black or dark gray; and a thick, tawny tail half as long as its body and tipped with black. And though most people know what a cougar looks like, very few people have seen one of these very rare visitors in Illinois. Though that wasn’t always so.
Cougars were once common in the Prairie State and functioned as one of the top predators of deer and other game. But they were eliminated from Illinois before 1870 due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Given the limited suitable habitat available now, it may seem unlikely that cougars would be seen in Illinois again. However, in the last several years there have been confirmed sightings of individual cougars in the state.
There is currently no evidence that resident breeding populations of cougars exist in Illinois at this time. Though as cougar populations in South Dakota, Nebraska and Rocky Mountain states increase, it is possible that more cougars will disperse through Illinois in search of new territory.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) confirmed that there have been at least six cougars in Illinois between 2002 and 2019. In 2002, a cougar was killed by a train in Randolph County. Another was killed by a bow hunter in Mercer County in 2004. In April 2008, a cougar was shot and killed by law enforcement officers in the Roscoe Village neighborhood in Chicago. A fourth was killed by an Illinois Conservation Police officer at a farmstead in Whiteside County in November 2013. All four were sub-adult (2–3-year-old) males. DNA analysis indicates that these four animals were genetically similar to cougars from South Dakota, which strongly suggests that they were all wild males dispersing from the western population.
Images taken by trail cameras in Jo Daviess County in September 2012, and in Morgan, Pike and Calhoun counties in October and November of that same year, were confirmed by IDNR to be a live cougar. Given the long distances typically traveled by cougars, and the proximity of the counties (especially Calhoun, Morgan and Pike), it is possible that the camera images may have shown the same individual.
Similarly, trail camera images taken from Sangamon and Effingham counties in November 2014 were confirmed to be of a cougar. The distances and chronology of the images suggest that they may have been of the same animal.
Cougars have been protected in Illinois since 2015. SB3049, which took effect January 1, 2015, amended the Illinois Wildlife Code by adding cougars, black bears, and gray wolves to the list of protected species. Because they are protected, cougars may not legally be hunted, killed or harassed unless there is an imminent threat to person or property. Should you see a cougar 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.
Obviously, managing large carnivores like cougars is more complicated than managing other species of wildlife. Knowing where large carnivores travel across the state will allow wildlife managers to proactively address potential human-carnivore conflicts, and mapping available suitable habitat will help biologists prepare for the potential influence of large carnivores on prey populations, smaller predators and the landscape.
That is why the IDNR requests that the public report cougar sightings in Illinois. Reviewable evidence is very helpful during efforts to identify the animal and the location. Original images of the animal or its tracks should be included. When documenting tracks or other signs, be sure to photograph individual tracks as well as groups of tracks. Include a ruler, measuring tape, or an object of standard size (quarter, business card, etc.) in the pictures to aid in the determination of the size of the tracks. Also include images of the wider area where the tracks were found, including other local features that can be located if the tracks are destroyed by weather.
Cougars are typically very elusive, so most sightings last only a few seconds. In Illinois, domestic dogs, domestic cats and bobcats (Lynx rufus) are the animals most commonly misidentified as cougars. Large dog tracks are also often misidentified as cougar tracks, but there are some telltale differences. Cats, including cougars, walk with their claws retracted, so claw marks will not appear in their tracks. The other differences are highlighted in this graphic of a cougar track and a dog track.
For most of us, the closest we’ll get to a cougar in Illinois is by sitting down and reading about them. The Cougar Network has a lot of good information, and basic natural history information and a current list of cougar sightings in the state are available on the cougar page at Wildlife Illinois. Of course, even if you never spot one of these elusive, large cats, there are a lot of other interesting species to see out there…so a walk in the woods is always is good idea.
Laura Kammin is an Educational Programming Specialist with 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.