The unusual damage stood out, even amidst the crumpled, dilapidated remains of a farm outbuilding in central Marion County.
Two 1 inch x 6 inch boards were shredded, clawed and gnawed to clear the way to a hole underneath the rubble. Muddy impressions of paw prints covered the piece of tin laying on top. A short distance away, atop a piece of fiberglass, was one solitary print, larger and different from the rest.
By the time Kansas Wildlife and Parks Natural Resource Officer Marvin Peterson arrived at the scene May 9 to investigate, a post on Facebook describing the site had generated more than 20 speculative comments about the possible cause. One popular hypothesis: a mountain lion.
Peterson had a good idea of what caused the damage, but called in Jeff Rue, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks district biologist from Wichita, for an expert second opinion.
“There was one print over there on fiberglass where I didn’t find claw marks, and I wanted to make sure. It’s such an emotional issue that if there’s any question in my mind I want a second opinion,” Peterson said.
Rue was emphatic with his conclusion, which matched that of Peterson.
“It looks like two, maybe three dogs were digging for rabbits,” Rue said. “The dogs probably picked up a scent or got a visual of it, chased it under that, and started digging,” Rue said.
“You can see where they were clawing and chewing at the wood. Wild animals are not going to expend that kind of energy,” Rue said.
“A wild animal is not going to work like this,” Peterson added. “They’re a more efficient predator. A cat is going to be an ambush predator.”
Rue called the paw prints a definitive clue.
“The tracks are longer than they are wide, and they’re pretty small. A cougar track is substantially larger,” Rue said.
What about the ambiguous print on the fiberglass?
“There was one that was questionable, but the size was a dead giveaway,” Rue said. “And rarely do you ever see cat claws in any kind of track like that.”
Peterson said there has never been a confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Marion County, but many area residents would beg to differ.
In 2006, the tales of eight people who believed they had sighted mountain lions in the county were related in an article in the Marion County Record. A picture of an alleged sighting in Jex Addition in Marion published by the newspaper in 2011 turned out to be a domestic housecat, and the coverage fueled more stories and speculation.
“That picture created quite a stir,” Peterson said.
The number of reports received by KDWP and the number of investigations he conducts is variable, Rue said.
“I couldn’t give you a number — I’d say once a month, if that,” Rue said. “It’s been a common occurrence for many years, people calling and reporting cougar sightings.”
“It depends on whether a newspaper article comes out about mountain lions. There’s more of them then,” Peterson said.
“I think it’s just human nature. People just want to believe it,” Rue said.
Rue gave several examples of radio-tagged mountain lions whose paths have crossed through western counties in Kansas.
“Around here we’ve never had a confirmed sighting, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible,” Rue said. “I think it would be a safe assumption we have some transient animals that move through the state, typically young males coming out of habitats like the Rocky Mountains that are getting pushed out, young males that are looking to establish territory somewhere else.”
KDWP is serious, methodical, and deliberate when investigating reported mountain lion sightings, an approach which hasn’t always worked to the department’s advantage as far as public opinion is concerned.
“It’s such an emotional issue people have accused us as an agency of all kinds of things through the years,” Peterson said. “Some said we released them, which we didn’t, but we’ve been accused of it, or that we just want to cover up all these sightings. It doesn’t matter to me — I don’t want to cover anything up.”
“Before we had our first documented one, we wanted to be 100 percent sure before we would confirm it,” Rue said. “There was a thought of a conspiracy that we were trying to hide something, but we wanted to be sure the evidence we were seeing is what it was.”
“I’ve had people I really trust tell me absolutely they’ve seen them. It’s like I’m calling somebody a liar when they tell me they’ve seen a mountain lion,” Peterson said. “I’m not. It’s just that I need more evidence, more proof.”
If someone has a picture of a possible sighting, department officials will use clues within the image to calculate the size of the animal to determine the validity of the sighting. Rue described what happened with a picture of a confirmed sighting northwest of Hays taken from a tree stand.
“What they did was to make a frame the size of a cougar. They took photos from that tree stand and matched it with the picture of the cougar and everything lined up, the measurements, the angle, everything, and that’s how they confirmed it was a cougar.”
So far, Rue and Peterson have been able to debunk the reported sightings where there has been some form of evidence left behind to scrutinize. They’ve discovered evidence of bobcats, housecats, and domestic dogs, but nothing indicating a mountain lion.
Nonetheless, Peterson said people should report any sighting or situation that raises their concern.
“In a situation like this one, it wasn’t a sighting. The gentleman told me he didn’t know what it was, but he thought it was vicious, and obviously it was,” Peterson said.
“If you’ve got a concern about something, give us a call, and we’ll determine what it is,” Peterson said.