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In reverse chronological order
Dec 16. We were just forwarded an eye-witness e-mail and photos of the Mercer County Cougar
In other news, we've had an upsurge of sighting reports - probably due to the harvesting of field crops and the autumn leaf fall making everything much easier to see for much longer distances. You can read the Fall 2004 reports at the sightings section of this website. Either the cougars are getting more numerous, or residents in the region are getting more sophisticated. Some of these recent sightings are classics.
Perry County, November 2004
Well we finally have some slim, objective proof that the cougar (or some large cat species) is actually in residence in Perry County!
Early in November we received a call from Roger Denton who owns the True Value store in Pinckneyville, Illinois that a large cougar had been spotted south of town. He also said that tracks were present and would we like to come up and see them ourselves? What could we do but acquiesce! So Ruby (your tireless webmistress) and I drove up there that same day and were shown the area where the tracks were found.
The site was a spoil pile from a strip mine that is currently being excavated for fill dirt. The area at the face of the excavation is covered with a (relatively) smooth, level layer of clay and fine gravel. Several days of rain had turned the clay to soft mush and was a perfect substrate for tracks for any kind of wildlife that happened by. When we arrived we found abundant deer, bobcat, bird, raccoon and... cougar tracks. At least we assumed they were cougar...
Having bought some plaster of Paris at Mr. Denton's hardware store we proceeded to cast five tracks which were both deep and well-defined. We also took several stereo photographs of other tracks we found there.
And there were a lot of tracks!
Only one exhibited any claw marks at all and these were where the animal slipped while ascending a slight rise and apparently reflexively extended its claws for traction. Unfortunately the tracks from this animal lacked the diagnostic trilobed shape of the heel characteristic of the classic cougar paw print. The tracks were roughly circular, about four inches wide and extremely numerous.
Just a stone's throw (literally) down the road a woman on her way to work had just a few days before been forced to sound her horn to get a large cougar to move out of the roadway. Other residents in the immediate vicinity had also reported numerous observations of this animal. Deer populations were spooked and acting strangely. This area was just across the highway from Pyramid State Park - an area noted for its high number of cougar sightings.
I took the casts to the Cooperative Wildlife Lab at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (SIUC) - the same lab that did the autopsy/necropsy on the 2000 Menard cat. The wildlife biologist was excited by the prints and we spent an enjoyable half hour discussing the return of the cougar to Illinois. But as mentioned earlier, this particular animal lacked the diagnostic lobing of the heel pad that would positively identify it as a cougar. With proper scientific restraint he would only say that assuming they were not made by dogs they could only have been made by a large cat of some kind.
He added that only 50% of the cougars he'd seen exhibited this trilobed heel pad (which I think sort of negates their diagnostic value) so the prints - all things being equal - could have been made by a cougar. I should add that he had a cast of a known cougar print (that he had personally witnessed being made) and that it seemed to be roughly half the size of the tracks Ruby and I had seen in Pinckneyville. He also stated categorically that they could not have been made by a bobcat.
We're going to try and get the wildlife biologist we talked to to contribute an article on cougar sign, cougar kills, and the things about them that make them unique so that you, our Gentle Readers, can determine and discriminate cougar kills from coyotes, dogs or other sorts of predators. Keep your fingers crossed!
January - March 2004
The big news of the new year were the large number of sightings in the Chicago area (Cook and Lake Counties). Many of the published reports sound like they're describing escaped pets. Most of these reports included descriptions of the animals observed that ruled out cougars immediately (four and five foot long, thin, wiry black cats (melanistic leopards - aka black panthers), black cats with white breast patches, and a common habit of prowling suburban back yards, eating pet food and sleeping in driveways - hardly common cougar behavior.
However several other reports seem to be of genuinely wild cats moving south out of Wisconsin. With their passage east blocked by Lake Michigan it appears that these animals are being forced south along the lakeshore and running smack into Chicago's sprawling megalopolis. Hardly a happy situation for any party involved. Of course Chicago has what no other city in the country has: large chunks of real estate with connecting corridors in perpetual non-development - the Chicago forest preserve system. Since hunting is banned in these areas (and some are quite large) the deer population there is out of control. Since much of the system is in blackthorn scrub.
Perry County - Interesting Changes...
Land use in Perry County is primarily rural and agricultural and consists of large fields with scattered woodlots - not prime real estate for large cats. The one exception is the area of Pyramid State Park located south and west of Pinckneyville, Illinois. We've talked with numerous people who have had sightings on the outskirts of the park and have been following up rumors of pictures and videos of the animals without success (so far). As the largest state park in the Illinois system this formerly strip-mined land has lots of room for cougars to roam. Recently (2004) there have been reports of livestock attacks on lands bordering the park.
Pyramid State Park seems to be a holding area for the overflow of cats coming from Randolph County next door. Hunters have been noticing that formerly tranquil deer herds in the county are now easily spooked. Areas bordering the park are now devoid of deer where just a few years ago they were abundant. Livestock attacks may be symptomatic of too many cats in too little space...
Related, Odd news - the Blynx
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