River in Lisbon, Missouri
 
Photo of landsacape.

HISTORY OF LIONS IN MISSOURI

Help ensure a future for mountain lions in Missouri.

Mountain lions are native to Missouri, but heavy human persecution drove them locally extinct by 1927. The species was eventually placed on the State's endangered species list and protected with only a handful of confirmed sightings since 1994. Despite the lack of a renewed population, the state ESA protection was removed in 2006.
Though most ‘mountain lion sightings’ in Missouri end up being misidentifications of dogs, bobcats, coyotes, deer and other animals, every once in awhile an occasional dispersing individual wanders over from western states.

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The History of Lions in Missouri

Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today's Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.

Petroglyph in Missouri
Photo of a bird petroglyph found in the state of Missouri.

What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago, and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the sabre-toothed lion.

During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleotologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Missouri, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.

Native People

Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840's, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.


Native American tribes who originally lived in the Missouri region included the Chickasaw, Missouri and Osage. The Chickasaw word for mountain lion is ‘kowishto’. The Osage knew the mountain lion as ‘inlonka.’
Prior to European settlement, like in so many other western and Great Plains states, mountain lions were native to the entire state of Missouri. And like everywhere else in the western territories, European settlement came at great cost to the native carnivores, including bears, wolves and mountain lions. The settlers feared these large predators were seen as a direct threat to human safety and livestock as well as competition for resources. Besides killing the lions themselves, the new settlers killed vast numbers of deer (primary prey for mountain lions) for food and sport, significantly reducing this essential food source for native predators. Hit by this two-prong assault, mountain lions didn’t stand a chance. The indiscriminate and direct killing of lions, combined with the loss of a main food source resulted in hunters eliminating mountain lions from most states east of the Rockies by the early 1900's. The last known native Missouri mountain lion was killed in 1927.

Fur trade


When Lewis and Clark returned from their journey of discovery in 1806, they reported to President Thomas Jefferson on the overwhelming abundance of beaver, otter, fox, mink, mountain lion and other fur-bearing animals they saw. ‘The territory was ripe for fur trapping,’ they said. While the main fur-bearer trapped was beaver, wolf, mountain lion, bear and fox skins all brought a price as well. However, when the beaver were trapped out, the fur trade began to wane, due to loss of the main market as well as other issues.

Unregulated Hunting


Although mountain lions in Missouri were wiped out by the 1920's, the species was eventually placed on the state’s endangered species list and protected (should any lions happen to turn up) in that state. Lions were gone for nearly seventy years. Eventually some dispersing individuals wandered over from western states. From 1994 through 2005, there were five cases of confirmed mountain lion presence (photographs, tracks, and/or DNA evidence) in Missouri, and three lions were killed by residents.

Then in 2006, based on unfounded concerns* from cattle ranchers, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Commission announced it was "...undesirable to have a breeding population of mountain lions in Missouri [...] therefore, the Department of Conservation will not encourage the species to reestablish itself in the state." This decision removed the mountain lion from the state’s endangered species list and reclassified it as "extirpated," meaning extinct (or no local breeding population) in a particular area.

Because of the irrational fear of what could happen and misinformation about the species, the mountain lion is no longer protected in Missouri.

* According to the MDC website, "The prospect of increasing mountain lion populations in Missouri causes a feeling of alarm for some folks. They cite the quickly growing bobcat population in the Midwest and are concerned that mountain lions could do the same thing if left unchecked. Missouri annually ranks among the top states for the number of cattle raised, and the potential presence of mountain lions causes much concern among producers. There have been no reports of mountain lions attacking people in Missouri, and no evidence of attacks on livestock or pets."

Sport and Recreational Hunting


There has never been a sport hunting season of mountain lions in Missouri as there has not been an established population there and the lions have been classified as ‘extirpated’ since 2006.


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