The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife (KDFW) has ended its eight month investigation into the origin and history of the first mountain lion to return to Kentucky since the species was extirpated in that state more than 150 years ago.
Necropsy results and tooth-aging analyses indicate the lion was a 125 pound, 5-year-old male in good physical condition and health. DNA analyses link the genetic origin of the animal to the dwindling lion population in the Black Hills of South Dakota, more than 1,100 miles northwest from where it eventually died.
While nothing can be definitively proven one way or another, the Department is touting "cherry-picked" facts in an effort to prove that the lion was a released captive animal and conservation officers did not over reacted on December 15, 2014 when they decided to shoot and kill the treed lion on a Bourbon County farm.
According to KDFW Biologist Steven Dobey, the fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had declared the eastern cougar to be extinct, and no mountain lion had been reported seen in Kentucky in over a century-and- a-half weighed heavily on the Department's decision to kill the lion.
"A released or escaped captive lion that has lost its fear of humans is a much greater threat to public safety than a truly wild, free-ranging lion," said Dobey.
Dobey went on to point out that, as far as KDFW is concerned, it had to be a released captive because there are no sightings of the lion during its travels, and mountain lions are normally stabilized in one location and not wandering a thousand miles away from their place of origin by the time they are five-year old.
"Furthermore, this animal was in remarkably good condition with few cuts and scars, and no broken teeth or claws often found on wild mountain lions of the same age," he said.
"We've exhausted all our leads," said Major Shane Carrier. "We have conducted our investigation and worked jointly with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officers to determine how this animal arrived in Kentucky. At this time, we are unable to definitely say who brought the lion into the state."
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Deputy Commissioner Dr. Karen Waldrop agreed. "There is no evidence supporting this animal traveled that distance on its own, or even spent any length of time on the ground here. This was either a released or escaped captive lion."
"Lions that become associated with people are extremely dangerous," she said. "They cannot be released. Sometimes well-meaning people do not realize that keeping wild animals almost always means condemning them to an early demise."
However, others are not as convinced by KDFW's theory.
Experts with the Cougar Network, a nonprofit, cougar research organization that has been tracking mountain lion sightings outside their established western state territories since 2002 came to a different conclusion after analyzing the same necropsy data.
According to them:
"In our professional opinion, the evidence indicates animal was most likely a wild, dispersing male from the Black Hills, South Dakota.
The physical evidence highlighted in the official reports supports our position. First, necropsy results found no tattoos and claws were intact (captive animals are usually tattooed and declawed). Second, though the animal was in good condition, it was infested with tapeworms and ticks suggesting it had been consuming wild mammals. Third, DNA evidence suggested that the animal originated in the Black Hills, South Dakota, a known source of dispersing males. Finally, the necropsy report itself states, 'there is no conclusive evidence the animal is of captive origin...'
It is not at all outside the realm of possibility that a male cougar could spend many years dispersing from the Black Hills into the Midwest and east. This was most prominently evidenced by the male cougar that was killed in Connecticut in June 2011 - that animal traveled for almost two years across >1,500 miles from South Dakota to the east coast. Furthermore, >150 cougars have been killed outside of western populations since 1996, in states including Illinois, Iowa, and Arkansas - all of which are far from western cougar range. Finally, the fact of the matter is that as males disperse from their natal territories, they are looking for prey and for mates. As there is plenty of prey, but no known females east of Nebraska, these dispersing males are likely to continue moving in search of a mate.
As such, we believe the known ecology of the species combined with our research and the evidence in the official reports indicate that the cougar killed in Kentucky last year was most likely a wild animal from the Black Hills of South Dakota."