Kentucky (usa)|shearluck||07/11/08 at 16:27:22|shearluck|xx|0||A lion in our midst?

Steve Ford
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Somewhere near here in a shadowy world that drifts between myth, hoax, rumor and reality, a big cat runs.

It's a mountain lion, an apex predator that moves in equal parts of grace, stealth and power. If the grizzly bear is the wilderness' king, the mountain lion is its regal crown prince.

Now it's time for you to decide what you think of a phone call I received this week that's not so unlike calls I've received four or five times over the same number of years from all over the Tri-State.

Someone, a credible source who did not wish to be named, had seen what he was certain was a mountain lion near the Wabash River, which is as specific as I intend to get about the place it was allegedly seen.

Actually this farmer was sure he'd seen two different cats, one of about 120 pounds with a four-foot tail and another one a couple days later in the same area of about 80 pounds and a shorter tail.

"The tail, that's the first thing you look for," said veteran Indiana conservation officer Gordon Wood. "When somebody mentions the tail, that gives their story more credence. A lot of people have been fooled by bobcats."

Wood admits his name was briefly on that list one day in his native Warrick County when he was privileged to have a bobcat cross a road just 50 yards from where he was walking.

"He didn't see me," said Wood. "But when I put the glasses on him, he looked so big I saw a mountain lion. Everything's the same except the size and the tail. When I shook my head and looked again this one didn't have the tail.

"I haven't heard anything about the ones you mentioned and I don't think any live near here, but there have been so many reports through the years I can't deny them. I wouldn't doubt they might move through the area."

Calls to various sources in the vicinity of the most-recent sightings offered no substantiation. "If there's a mountain lion near here somebody released it recently," said a trapper who lives near the area. "I've never seen any tracks or scat (droppings) from a cat that big."

Wood said a conservation officer he knew watched a mountain lion inspect his decoy while turkey hunting in a predominantly agricultural area in northeast Missouri.

"He was 100 percent sure of what he'd seen," said Wood. "It was only 80 yards away and it really unnerved him. He didn't know if a turkey load would stop it."

An even closer sighting of a mountain lion occurred in Crittenden County, Ky., in February by retired conservation officer Floyd "Rip" Wheeler during a drive.

"It was exactly 3:15 p.m. when I saw the varmint," said Wheeler, 84. "I'm just as sure about what I saw as I am about telling somebody the difference between a fox squirrel and a gray squirrel.

"I used to deer hunt in Colorado so I'd seen them in the wild before, although this is the only one I've ever seen in Kentucky. I watched it for eight minutes and it raised its head five times because it knew we were there.

"It was only about 70 yards away and I had a good enough look at it I can tell you for certain, if you know what I mean, that it was a female between 80 and 85 pounds. It had also been wounded in the right hip and was bleeding a little."

Then the animal slipped into a thicket and was gone, never to be seen by Wheeler again. But when word of his sighting got out two others called to say they'd seen the animal, too.

"I don't know how it got there, but I know what I saw," said Wheeler. "I'm 100 percent sure I saw a mountain lion in the wild in Kentucky."

Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana are criss-crossed by major river systems, national forests, national wildlife areas and wilderness areas like Land Between the Lakes.

Black bears are expanding their range and population to the point in Kentucky that a controlled hunt is in the works and coyotes have been studied in downtown Chicago.

"There's no doubt in my mind one could get here on its own," said Wood. "Let's just say I'm not going to be surprised if it happens. I will want to see it for myself, though."

So, is it so far-fetched to think a mountain lion might turn up near here? I'm thinking we've moved way past myth and hoax. Now we wait for a big cat to make that last long step from rumor to reality.