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Be prepared for next cougar

State needs a plan to deal with big cats

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Submitted)
A conservation officer shot a cougar near Lyndon Road southeast of Morrison on Nov. 20. It was the first time an Illinois Department of Natural Resources officer has killed a cougar.

He was lean, athletic, and had traveled hundreds of miles, most likely from the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. He had attacked no one as he passed hundreds of towns and many more farms, each of them a lethal threat to his mission.

Yet, for lack of a better wildlife management plan in Illinois, the young cougar couldn’t get past a conservation officer armed with a state-issued rifle.

The necropsy says the cougar killed [Nov. 20] as he hid near Morrison, 130 miles west of Chicago, died of gunfire.

In truth, he died of official neglect: Even though more cougars and possibly wolves likely will be visiting Illinois, state lawmakers and the Department of Natural Resources haven’t forged policies that could allow the tranquilization, capture, and survival of animals whose ancestors blissfully roamed the Midwest long before humans intruded on their turf.

Given his hunting skills, the young male could have homesteaded anywhere in the Upper Midwest and dined on the bountiful deer population for the rest of his life. Instead, his four huge paws carried out the imperative that drove him: With larger, older males driving him away from the females on their home ranges, this cougar came looking for love.

A farmer called authorities to report a large cat running from a cornfield toward his farmstead and, sure enough, a responding conservation officer found the cat under a corn crib, probably hiding until darkness would allow it to flee.

We won’t second-guess the officer, who consulted with law enforcement and wildlife personnel before killing the cougar. That said, this was an outcome that didn’t have to be. A magnificent creature might well be headed back to South Dakota if Illinois had learned lessons after Chicago police shot and killed a cornered cougar in the Roscoe Village neighborhood 5 years ago.

What all of us, legislators included, have to understand is that the return of feline or canine predators to their traditional realms doesn’t mean the animals want to hurt anyone. Even as this episode unfolded, millions of National Geographic readers were receiving the magazine’s December issue, with an 18-page spread: “Ghost Cats ... Cougars are quietly reclaiming lost ground.” The relevant passage: “Cougars have attacked humans on about 145 occasions in the U.S. and Canada since 1890. Just over 20 of those assaults – an average of one every 6 years – proved fatal.”

Yet in this case, with an animal that had threatened no one while bypassing thousands of Midwesterners, a DNR spokesman rationalized that, “Public safety is what we’ll make the decision on every time.”

The rest of DNR’s explanation is similarly lame: The department otherwise would have had to find someone to capture and move the animal. This officer thought the situation too unsafe to call a veterinarian to tranquilize the cat. Conservation officers don’t carry tranquilizer guns.

That thinking led the DNR to the specious excuse that if the officer had shot the cougar with the wrong dosage of tranquilizer, the animal could have been harmed or killed accidentally. That excuse evokes the February 1968 explanation from a U.S. major to an Associated Press correspondent about the Vietnamese provincial city of Ben Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

We were struck by sensible comments last week from Bruce Patterson, curator of mammals at Chicago’s Field Museum, who wonders why this animal had to be shot when it evidently was hiding during daylight and hadn’t threatened anyone: “It’s possible to manage wildlife while still keeping it around.”

When we editorialize about humans slaying wild predators, some readers say our concern should be – as it constantly is – directed instead to the needless killings of young people, and not toward one lost, probably frightened animal.

Fair enough, although it’s possible to think about both. Just as we know there will be more homicides, we know that more big predators likely are coming to Illinois.

So we’ll look back to what we expressed after the 2008 killing of the cougar in Roscoe Village: We hope Illinois comes away from last week’s episode with more than one dead cougar and a communal sadness. Illinois should develop a reliable protocol that errs on the side of trying to preserve the life of the lost animal – not of making the ad hoc decision to kill it and then resolving the ambiguities in favor of that decision.

That’s what happened here.

A logical first step now: Give cougars protection under the Illinois Wildlife Code; they lack that protection now only because there is no known breeding population in this state. But with trail cameras capturing photos of one or more cougars in Jo Daviess, Morgan, Pike and Calhoun counties last fall, the animals evidently are re-establishing themselves in a state where they haven’t been known to live since 1870.

Lawmakers, DNR officials, you can do better. So can the rest of us, first by using sites such as cougarnet.org to offset our visceral fear with scientific knowledge.

Wild animals roam this state. Always have and, we hope, always will. As we urged here in 2008: The same Illinois that was unprepared for the last cougar had better get ready for the next. He’s probably en route.

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