Mountain lion spotted in suburban St. Louis

Friday, January 21, 2011 | 10:11 a.m. CST

CHESTERFIELD — Deer are common in areas of suburban St. Louis. Raccoons and skunks, too.

But mountain lions?

Pictures taken Jan. 12 from a stationary wildlife camera in Chesterfield provide the first confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in St. Louis County since 1994.

The Missouri Department of Conservation isn't yet sure if it is a wild mountain lion or if it belongs to one of the 32 people in the state who have permits to keep captive mountain lions, said Joe Jerek, a spokesman for the department.

Conservation officials told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch they believe the animal was most likely passing through Chesterfield in search of territory or a mate.

The pictures show the big cat making its way around a tree, its head slung low. The lion's sex and age aren't known.

It was the third Missouri sighting of a mountain lion — also known as a cougar, puma or panther — since November. The others were along the Missouri River in Platte and Ray counties, rural areas north of Kansas City.

The camera that captured the image of the St. Louis County mountain lion was set up by a Chesterfield resident, Garrett Jensen, a hunter and outdoor enthusiast. He installed the camera on a tree to monitor wildlife in the woods behind his home. The camera is triggered by heat and movement.

Jensen was out of town on Jan. 12, when the camera automatically snapped a series of photos about 2:30 a.m. He was surprised to see the images when he got home.

"I was like, 'Oh, my God,' I really couldn't believe it had happened," said Jensen, 36, the owner of a tree service company. "I called everyone close to me and said, 'You're not going to believe this, I caught a mountain lion on my camera.'"

A Missouri Wildlife Response Team went to the site Wednesday but did not find any tracks.

"While we did not find further evidence, such as tracks, we can confirm that the photos are of a mountain lion at the reported location," said Jeff Beringer, a member of the team, said in statement.

Jensen's camera also captured shots of countless deer, squirrels, raccoons and a coyote.

Deforestation and hunting essentially drove mountain lions out of Missouri by the 1920s, and the state has not had a breeding population in several decades. Jerek said the nearest groups of mountain lions live in Nebraska and South Dakota.

But a mountain lion's range is immense.

"They can travel for hundreds of miles," Jerek said.

Conservation officials said there is no evidence suggesting mountain lions are re-establishing a population in Missouri.

"In states where even small populations of these big cats exist, there is plenty of hard evidence," Beringer said. "Florida, for example, has a population of only 100 mountain lions, yet several are killed by automobiles each year. They also have other clear, hard evidence like tracks, scat and kill sites."

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