September 5, 2007

Kansas Cougars? True, Says Wildlife Exec

By Roy Wenzl, The Wichita Eagle, Kan.

In rural Kansas, nothing starts a wild conversation faster than asking whether anybody has seen wild mountain lions lately.

Kansans get crazy about this; it's part of our state mythology.

On Tuesday, in an e-mail sent to journalists statewide, Ron Klataske, the executive director of Audubon of Kansas, claimed he has proven that the cats are back.

"This shows what a lot of people have seen for years," Klataske said.

On his Web site, he posted photographs, shot in 2006 from 200 yards away, of an indistinct-looking creature climbing a Flint Hills ridge; he also posted photos of plaster casts he took from the same area.

The casts appear to show a footprint 4 inches wide.

The photos were shot by out-of-state guests, he said. He won't say who, or where, though he admits that the photo shows what looks like the steep, treeless Flint Hills near his office in Manhattan.

Klataske is well-known as a vigorous advocate for wildlife and conservation. He is sure that this is proof of what hundreds of Kansans have said for years: that a major predator again lurks in shelter belts and cedar groves, stalking deer, watching us.

Klataske's critics pounced immediately.

"It is strikingly odd how Ron has gone about this," said Matt Peek, the furbearer biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

"Ron works with Wildlife and Parks a lot, and he knows that this is a subject we are intensely interested in. If he has casts, it means he had footprints; it would have been a lot more scientifically sound to bring us in to see the actual footprints. As it is, you've got a photo that isn't clear, and plaster casts that could have been taken anywhere," Peek said.

"Where's the science?" asked Kansas State extension specialist Charles Lee, a leading authority on Kansas predators. "Where's the peer review? Those photos could have been shot anywhere. Or if it was a lion, who's to say it wasn't a pet turned loose?"

Peek pointed out that no one in his department disputes that lions could be here. People in all four states on Kansas' borders have proven the lions are there, as shown by roadkill or other evidence. But Peek said no credible scientist would declare Klataske's materials to prove anything unless it had been examined by scientists. "If he's got this stuff," Peek said, "who has looked at it?"

"Well," Klataske said, "I am a wildlife biologist myself, and I think I'm as good as anybody."

He said he would not reveal the location where the photos were taken because the landowners "don't want people coming by to kill the animal" and are skeptical of how Wildlife and Parks would handle the situation.

"Typically, when people report these sightings, Wildlife and Parks treats people as though they've been dreaming," Klataske said.

Agreed-upon proof of the cat's return would be a huge deal. The last known wild mountain lion in Kansas was killed by bird hunters in 1904. Since then, there have been thousands of sightings, endless debate, and no conclusive proof that scientists agree on. Some people claim Wildlife and Parks imported the big cats to curb the huge deer population, a myth that Peek says will never disappear.

Lee vigorously recorded lion sightings for decades, pursuing leads. Kirk Woods, an Oxford, Kan., outdoorsman who has often hunted mountain lions in Colorado and New Mexico, spent years working with Lee, taking his dogs out to track lions whenever a sighting was reported. He never found a lion footprint, and the dogs never got a whiff. What Woods found were dog tracks, coyotes, and angry ranchers claiming that Woods' veteran dogs couldn't be right.

A few years ago, people thought they saw a mountain lion in Lawrence. A sample of poop was found, and its DNA tested; the initial tests appeared to show it was lion poop. But the tests have since been called into question.

Wildlife and Parks has a big stake in this: If a major predator turned up in Kansas, they would be responsible for studying it and informing people how to protect themselves.

"All we've got with Ron's release, though, is more questions than answers," Peek said.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or [email protected] [mailto:[email protected]].