Cay Ernst of Washington took this picture of a cat-like critter in the backyard of her home near Washington in Tazewell County.
Another Illinois cougar?
Luke Gramp was looking for morel mushrooms early this month near Washington. He wound up finding much more.
Exactly what Gramp found in a wooded area of Tazewell County is a matter of conjecture. Big cat? Big dog? Bobcat? All are possibilities.
But the Morton resident is fairly confident the large, tan critter he flushed from a brushpile overlooking a steep ravine was a mountain lion.
“I probably wasn’t 30 yards away from him and the thing that stuck out the most to me was how big his paws were when he started running and how big his legs were,” Gramp said. “I’ve had plenty of encounters with coyotes and as skinny as their legs are, this was no coyote.”
Gramp said he had less than 10 seconds to watch the critter before it ran over a hill.
“Thank God it ran away from me and not at me,” Gramp said. “I don’t want to take my son out there mushroom hunting anymore, I’ll tell you that. As for myself, I don’t know if I want to go wander around there.”
And Gramp is not alone in spotting a big, cat-like critter within roaming distance of Caterpillar Inc.’s 2,550-acre, wooded and fairly remote Peoria Proving Grounds.
In late February Cay Ernst snapped a picture of a cat-like creature walking through snow behind her home at 1805 Santa Fe Road, southeast of the proving grounds. She was alerted to the animal when her basset hound started pounding on the back door — an unusual occurrence since the dog usually stays outside until summoned indoors.
While attending to the dog, Ernst saw a large, brown critter lounging in her backyard.
“It was about 25 feet off my porch when I first saw it, lying by a rock where there wasn’t any snow,” Ernst said. “Then it walked away like a lion would with big paws. And when I looked up cougar on the Internet after I saw it, I said, ‘That’s what was looking at me.’”
By the time Ernst got a picture of the critter as it left her yard, she was only able to photograph the top one-third of the animal’s body.
Bob Bluett is furbearer biologist for the Department of Natural Resources and said he reviewed the picture. “You can’t be sure, but in our estimation that was a bobcat based on the shape and position of the ear and the tail,” Bluett said.
Ernst isn’t so sure. She has looked at pictures of bobcats and said they don’t fit what she saw. She has also heard stories about clear trail-cam pictures of a big cat taken by someone on nearby Nofsinger Road.
Unfortunately, neither Ernst nor Gramp got pictures or casts of tracks to back up their sightings.
Even so, I’m more willing than ever to believe big-cat reports. Anything seems possible in the wake of last spring’s shooting of a wild cougar in a paved alley north of Chicago.
Remember that one? On April 14, 2008 police shot a 122-pound mountain lion in Roscoe Village. Genetic tests showed the cat had wandered more than 950 miles to the Windy City from South Dakota — pushed out because cougar habitat in the Dakotas is saturated.
As a result, mountain lions keep moving into new areas. A cougar was shot in Bossier City, La. last December. Another was shot in 2007 in Kansas. Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri have had multiple big-cat reports.
That said, there’s no reason to panic. Cougar maulings are rare. More to the point, most big-cat sightings turn out to be large yellow Labrador retrievers, large Golden retrievers, bobcats or something else.
Last summer there were numerous big-cat reports out of Alton, Okawville and Nashville in southwestern Illinois. At last check, nobody has been mauled. And nobody has proof positive of that cat, either.
Hey, if one-third of the Illinois big-cat reports panned out, we’d have a breeding population in the Prairie State.
But prior to the Chicago cougar, the last free-ranging mountain lion documented in Illinois was in December of 2004 in Mercer County. That cat was found dead, apparently shot with an arrow. Another cougar was found dead after being hit by a train in Randolph County in July of 2000. Prior to that, the last verified record in Illinois was from Alexander County in 1862.
Just in case this critter makes a return visit, though, Ernst is ready.
“My camera is sitting on the back table,” she said.