Joseph Gerth, The Courier-Journal 8:45 a.m. EST December 17, 2014
A Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife officer killed a mountain lion on a Bourbon County farm on Monday, marking the first confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Kentucky since before the Civil War, said Mark Marraccini, a spokesman for the agency.
Marraccini said a farmer spotted the cat in a tree and alerted the department. When the officer responded, he found the animal had been trapped in different tree by a barking dog and decided it was best to “dispatch it.”
Mountain lions were once native to Kentucky but they were killed off here more than a century ago, Marraccini said.
Mountain lions are the largest cats found in North America and can measure up to eight feet from nose to tail and weigh up to 180 pounds. Also known as cougars, pumas, panthers and catamounts, the cats are considered top-line predators because no other species feed on them.
Marraccini said the wildlife officer shot the cat because it was about 5:30 p.m. and getting dark and he feared that it would slip away in darkness and threaten people in the nearby city of Paris.
“If that cat had left that tree, it would have disappeared into the brush and it was a fairly populated area,” said Marraccini, who said it would have taken several hours and dark before a state veterinarian could retrieve the tranquilizer from her safe and get it to the scene had officials taken that route.
“It sounds good but it’s pretty impractical,” said Marraccini, who said the officer who shot the cat made the right call.
“That’s the way the officers deemed to handle it and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be handled that way,” he said.
Marraccini said a state veterinarian will conduct a necropsy on the cat Tuesday to determine if it is a wild cat or a former pet that was either released or escaped.
According to the Cougar Network, the cat is mostly confined to the western United States but is advancing east. For years, the Mississippi River has been thought to be a barrier to the mountain lion’s eastern expansion. But its clear they have been getting close to Kentucky.
They have colonized in South Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri, said Amy Rodrigues, a staff biologist for the Mountain Lion Foundation, and there have been sightings in recent years in Indiana and even downtown Chicago.
Rodrigues said that mountain lions each need more than 100 square miles to survive and many of the animals being killed as they expand east are young males under the age of two that have been kicked out by their mothers. They often travel east looking for deer, water and female cougars.
But Rodrigues said states that kill the animals when they enter are wrong for doing it and that the animals shouldn’t cause fear. “If you’re a deer, they’re a little dangerous. If you’re a human, not so much,” she said. “Attacks on people are not that common. There have only been 22 deaths in the last 120 years.”
She said people are at greater risk of dying from bee stings and lightning strikes than they are from cougar attacks.
They get a bad rap because “they are large animals with sharp teeth,” Rodrigues said.
She added the presence of mountain lions in an ecosystem adds to biological diversity, which she said helps the environment recover from natural disaster and diseases that affect the fauna in a region.
Mark Dowling, a director of the Cougar Network, which advocates for the use of science to understand the animals, said the population was being pushed further and further west until the 1960s when a number of western and midwestern states began to classify them as game animals rather than vermin, and limiting people’s right to kill them.
Since then, he said, the cats have been slowly reclaiming their old turf.
Marraccini said there is no official protocol about how to handle more mountain lions if they are found in Kentucky but he doubts that they will be allowed to colonize here like they have in many western states.
“Every one of them is handled on it’s own,” said Marraccini.
Marraccini said that people and legislators probably would be opposed to allowing the cats to stay in the state. “When you have a population essentially that has had generations and generations and generations that have not had top-line predators, you think about it. You going to let your kids wait for the school bus in the dark? …”
“From a wildlife diversity perspective, it would be a neat thing but from a social aspect, probably not,” he said.
Dowling wouldn’t take a position on whether the cat should have been killed but said that most states that have had the cats moving through them have just left the cats alone. In fact, he said he can’t think of a state wildlife agency that shoots them on sight but he noted that South Dakota will shoot them when they enter a city.
But he said human attacks are few and far between, even in California where there are thousands of the cats, some of them living within large cities like Los Angeles.
“It’s very, very rare for them to show any aggression toward humans,” he said. “They, in fact, have a fear of people.”
Animals like the mountain lion once near extinction or limited in their range are rebounding across the country. The first gray wolf confirmed in Kentucky in generations was shot by a hunter a year and a half ago near Munfordville.