Last November a deer hunter showed us a night photo from a trail camera he had set up a few miles south of Kewanee that showed a cougar trotting through the trees not too far from where I live.
Cougars close to Kewanee, or in Illinois for that matter, is nothing new. I have a file of stories going back to April of 2009 with reports of tracks, attacks and sightings in this area.
Residents living north of Kewanee around the “T” intersection at the end of East Street claimed they had been seeing an occasional cougar for several years.
In December of 2009, “something big” attacked and tried to drag away a pony on a farm near Geneseo. In January of 2010 there were several reports of large tracks — possibly made by a cougar — found in the snow west of Kewanee.
The most recent, and closest, encounter took place Nov. 21 on a farm near Morrison where an IDNR officer shot and killed a cougar which was threatening some horses.
According to conservation officers, cougars, known for traveling long distances for food and mating, were beginning to migrate from places like South Dakota into Iowa and Illinois.
It is now presumed by many that they are here, but so far keeping to themselves. They are also usually on the move at night. Cougars are distinguished from bobcats, which are already here, by their long, low-hanging tail.
In recent weeks we have heard several reports of cougar sightings near Kewanee. One was reportedly seen in a field behind Walmart, while a motorist reported seeing one run across the road in front of him west of Kewanee at the intersection of Page Street and the road which leads south to The Dunes. There was also an unconfirmed report last month of a “big cat” found under a porch on Willard Street.
Sunday, while helping with the Wethersfield FFA spaghetti dinner at LaGondola, sophomore chapter member and young deer hunter Marshall Shimmin shared a photo on his smartphone recently captured by a fellow hunter on a trail cam. It shows a long, large cat of some kind crossing a snow-covered field in daylight. It was taken in central Illinois, rather than near Kewanee, but it shows how far into the state they have moved.
Are we in danger? Any time a predator — like a coyote, wolf or cougar — is hungry and you are a potential food source, or you startle a wild animal, there is a chance of danger, but so far, these carnivores appear to be keeping their distance. When it turns cold, the ground freezes, and with snow, animals who survive on prey widen their hunting field, sometimes by hundreds of miles. They come out of hiding along creeks, rivers and the cover of timber and brush and are seen more often in the open.
Page 2 of 2 - As far as I know, there have been no recent reports of livestock being killed in this area but this time of year most cattle, hogs and sheep are either in or near farm buildings rather than out in isolated fields where they could be a meal of opportunity for a roaming cougar, mountain lion, panther or coyote.
According to the stories I have seen, conservationists still don’t believe we have a year-round cougar population living here. They are still traveling here for seasonal needs only in higher numbers, which may be why there are more sightings.
What worries me is that 10 years ago when I first became aware of coyotes in our midst they were still “invisible,” staying away from people and populated areas. You hardly ever saw one. Now, a coyote can be seen walking down the middle of a city street in broad daylight having become less afraid of us. I hope cougars don’t become so comfortable and unafraid that we find them interacting in a more direct manner. That might have serious consequences.
As Jeanette Gibson pointed out in her Dec. 5 Kewanee Outdoors column in the Star Courier, Illinois does not currently have a policy on tranquilizing, capturing or relocation of large predators like western states where people are also educated on how to behave when coming in contact with them.
Let’s hope we don’t get to that point around here. I’ve just got the coyotes on the run. I’m not sure I could scare off a cougar (or would want to try)!