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Thursday, July 28, 2005 03:24 pm

The beast of the bluffs

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PHOTO BY TOM UHLENBROCK/KRT

After a frustrating early morning of turkey hunting in late April, John and his father-in-law gave up and decided to return to their Jacksonville homes. They wouldn’t go home without a good story, though.

As the two men stepped out of the woods, John spotted something, crouched low in the still-untilled field.

“Whoa, stop!” he shouted — and as his father-in-law turned around to see what had startled John, a big cat bolted into the woods, “covering 30 feet in just two or three bounds.”

 “It couldn’t have been more than 25 feet in front of him, but he didn’t seem to see it,” John says. “It was huge — I would guess 6 to 7 feet long.”

Chalk up another sighting of a big cat in central Illinois. Like most of the others, it’s unconfirmed and uncorroborated.

The only “big” cats officially recognized as wild residents of Illinois are bobcats — and they aren’t all that big. They are, by all statistical measures, making an amazing population recovery in certain parts of the state, but it would be hard to mistake a bobcat for large cat.

“I have seen bobcats before while hunting,” John says. “This was certainly not a bobcat. This looked like a dark-colored cougar.”

A similar animal was seen about three years earlier near Murrayville, south of Jacksonville. The woman (like John, she doesn’t want her name published) says that the cat she spotted near her rural home was as large as a “retriever-type dog.”

Newer, more substantive evidence has piqued the interest of officials with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Joe Redshaw, an insurance agent from Rushville, recently turned over to the state agency videotape evidence of a large cat he had seen prowling near his property six times in the last two weeks.

The animal on the 15-second tape — possessing the distinctive long tail and raised front shoulders of a cougar — is shown crossing in front of a barn, in a pasture, and even in front of a cow.

It is “definitely a big cat,” a state biologist says. What’s unclear is whether the cat has markings. Though they are not evident on the video, Redshaw notes that an earlier, closer encounter left him with that impression, suggesting that the animal is an escaped exotic — for example, a leopard or jaguarondi — instead of a cougar, which roamed Illinois up until about 120 years ago.

Gerald Day was living near Walkerville in the late spring of 2003 when his opinion on cougars in Illinois was cemented into a “without a doubt certain” position.

“I was looking out a window at a field when, out of some bordering timber, stepped a cougar,” Day says. “It was yellow or tan and was some 200 feet away. It had a really long tail and was about the same size as a lab dog, but this was definitely a cat. My family was in the house, so I called to them and got multiple witnesses, but unfortunately we did not have a camera ready before it went back in the timber.”

The cougar (often commonly known by such alternative names as puma, mountain lion, and panther) is classified by the Illinois Natural History Survey as an extirpated species. It is commonly believed that the last free-roaming cougars in Illinois were shot and killed in the 1880s. Most government wildlife agencies maintain that, outside of the subspecies known as the Florida panther, no active cougar (Felis concolor cougar) populations exist east of the Mississippi River.

Authorities are quick to admit, however, that cougars are being kept by individuals, both legally and illegally, as pets in Illinois. Though the state’s laws preventing the importation and keeping of big cats were strengthened in the 1980s, a black market for exotic animals has always thrived. It is to the possibility of intentional or inadvertent escapees from this stock of caged cats that state officials and academics have always attributed cougar sightings in Illinois — until, that is, July 15, 2000.

Five years ago, in Randolph County, a collision between a tawny cougar and a train gave scientists their first Illinois carcass to study. The specimen was a healthy male with DNA matching that of the wild populations of the Western states. The Illinois State Academy of Science proclaimed it the first documented wild cougar found in Illinois since the late 19th century.

Four years later, a hunter in Mercer County, near New Boston, stumbled across another dead cougar; this one had succumbed to a wound apparently caused by an arrow. The body was turned over to Dr. Clay Nielson of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, who specializes in the study of big cats. This specimen, too, was a large (84 inches, head to tail) male. Its stomach contained both the wild game it had hunted and grasses — a common finding in wild bobcats. A DNA analysis of the cat’s tissues has not yet been released.

When asked about cougars in Illinois, Bob Bluett, a certified wildlife biologist with the DNR, says that it “seemed likely” that the Mercer County cat was indeed of wild stock and that the two males “fit the profile of pioneering individuals.”

Most male cougars are known as transients; lacking a distinct territory, they may travel as far as 30 miles in one night. These transient males may set up territories of 20 to 40 square miles and eventually seek out multiple transient females, which then remain within the territory. The monogamous females generally produce one to six offspring every two years.

But have cougars really returned to Illinois? Is central Illinois host to a permanent, albeit small, resident breeding population?

If there are cougars in Illinois, perhaps no one has had a better chance of coming across one in his career than Dennis Langellier. A former state employee, Langellier drove each day from Jerseyville to Mount Sterling, a path that runs parallel to the heavily wooded bluffs of the Illinois River.

Langellier’s first sighting occurred on a subzero January morning in 1994 as he was heading north, just south of Exeter. Two full-size cougars, he says, crossed the road a quarter-mile in front of him. As his car neared where they had crossed, he saw them, roughly 25 feet from the highway.

“I would guess that each was 200 pounds in weight. They were tan-colored, and both had long tails,” he says. “From what I know about them, they are solitary creatures. The only time more than one are seen together is a mother with her young. Though they were both large, full-grown, I can only assume that that is what I saw.”

Langellier’s second sighting occurred six years later, during the summer of 2000, not far from the first. It was on Route 100, not more than a half-mile south of Interstate 72. This time, a tawny-yellow big cat crossed 50 yards in front of his car.

“This cat wasn’t either of the ones I had seen before. This one was not as big — it was still big, just not full-grown. Still a cougar, though, no doubt,” he says.

“My oddest sighting, though, was fairly recent. I live in rural Patterson, along some woods and a creek. This was a couple winters ago. I was outside working when I see this big cat — all black — come out of the creek bed and jump over my fence and head back into the woods. This didn’t look like a cougar to me, but it was no housecat. It was at least three times as big as a housecat and had a really muscular rear end and a long tail like a cougar. I don’t know what it was, but I saw it,” he says.

Like Langellier, Vic Lanzotti logs more miles on west-central Illinois’ back roads than most of us could imagine, working as a FedEx driver for the counties of Morgan, Scott, Greene, and Macoupin. Like Langellier, he came across a cougar — two years ago, in mid-July — and enjoys sharing other stories he has been told because of his sighting.

“[It was] in Greene County, east of White Hall, in the Apple Creek Bottom. The cat crossed the road in front of me and jumped the ditch into corn about 5 or 6 feet tall,” Lanzotti says.

“I was reluctant to tell anyone, but I had some friends I trusted, and, as it turns out, a few had also seen big cats. A lady in White Hall had seen a black cat — cougar-size — cross the road south of Greenfield on [Illinois Route] 108. Another farmer, from Carrollton, saw a large black-cat cougar in about the same area. There is a farmer in Eldred that says a mother and cub wintered in a hollow on his place close to Spanky on the Macoupin Creek.”

Dave Holterfield of Beardstown doesn’t believe cougars have returned to Illinois; instead, he insists they never left.

Holterfield was born and raised, he says, “in the hollers and hills of Calhoun County,” a region renowned for and often proud of being behind the times. It was 1958 when Holterfield’s father spotted a full-grown cougar on the family farm. His father had stopped a team of horses and was a rolling a cigarette when the cat emerged from dense woods.

Less than a year after this incident, young Holterfield came face to face with the cat: “The sun wasn’t up yet, but there was plenty of morning light to see by. I was headed out to the privy and had just stepped out of the house when there it was, just sitting there on its haunches. It was huge, tawny, and just staring at me,” Holterfield says. “I ran back inside and woke my dad, shouting, ‘That cat is out there again!’ ” By the time his father got out there, though, the cat was gone.

Years later, Holterfield found half of a pig’s carcass on the property. “It was not torn apart like coyotes would do; it was cleanly cut in half,” Holterfield says.

And in 1972, he says, while on a trip to visit his new in-laws, driving from Mozier to Kampsville, he spotted a pair of juvenile tawny cougars lounging 20 feet from the road. “They were not bobcats or big housecats,” he says. “You could see it in their haunches, head, and tail. These were cougars — no doubt about it.”

Not long after, Holterfield moved to the Beardstown area, and he hasn’t seen a cougar since.

Homer Briney is a down-to-earth, successful farmer who owns a large plot of land on the Illinois River bluffs just north of Beardstown. He happens to live near Joe Redshaw, the man with the recent videotaped evidence of a big cat.

In late spring, after a heavy rain, Briney discovered a trail of mud prints across his blacktopped driveway, footprints that lasted for weeks because of the recent drought conditions. Each print measured just over 4 inches wide and 3.5 inches long, and Briney is convinced they were left by a large cougar. Admittedly, cougar prints and dog prints are quite similar — the primary difference lies in the rear lobes of the ball of the print, which, unfortunately, were poorly distinguishable in the muddy imprints.

“I believe there is a cougar living in the bottoms near my farm,” Briney says. “We have the perfect environment for one out here. Two winters ago, a friend of mine was hunting on my property and shot a huge buck. It was so big that he had problems moving it, so he called me. It had started to rain, so I told him, ‘Let’s get it in the morning.’ Well, the next morning we go to right where he knew it was, and it is gone! We searched everywhere and eventually found it some 500 feet away. All that was left was the skin, the end of the legs, and most of the head. It wasn’t ripped apart like coyotes would do. This was different. That was a 300-pound buck dragged that far.”

He claims that the same thing happened this last winter to a deer that was hit on the road in front of his house. He found the remains, in similar condition, dragged into a field near his home.

“The night that these prints were made, my dog acted really strange, standing at the back door being protective, but at the same time you could tell that it was scared to death,” Briney says.

Between the Illinois State Police reports and the carcasses that have been found, two facts are inarguable: Attracted by our large deer population, transient male cougars do occasionally roam into Illinois from the Western states; and cougars are certainly kept secretly and illegally in “home zoos.” Of course, anyone who came face to face with a cougar in the wild would probably find the question of the animal’s ancestry an irrelevant question.

Officially, the answer to the question of whether cougars are really back — having established a resident breeding population in Illinois — is still unknown. The search for them has begun to resemble a Midwestern version of the hunt for Bigfoot.

Maurice Hornocker, director of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute at the University of Idaho and the first researcher to use radio telemetry in field studies of cougar movements and travels, recently said, “[Cougars] will hit the Mississippi in the next decade. The Midwest is beautiful cat country, full of deer and cover.”

Ask some folks in rural central Illinois, and they will tell you that Hornocker’s projection is behind by at least a decade or so.

To see the cougar video click here.

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