On Tuesday, September 12, a mountain lion was photographed feeding on a cow elk carcass in Shannon County, Missouri. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), it was the first mountain lion sighting of the year in the southern Missouri county, which sits in the northeastern corner of the Ozark Mountain range, about 160 miles southwest of St. Louis.
The images were captured on a trail camera set up by a member of the state's Mountain Lion Response Team, MDC Furbearer and Black Bear Biologist Nate Bowersack tells Field & Stream. The dead elk was first spotted by a resident who noticed the mountain lion running away from the carcass as they approached. The resident then alerted the MDC, and a biologist was called out to investigate.
"We set up trail cameras on the carcass to see if the lion would return to it, and indeed that afternoon a lion did return to it," Bowersack says. "The wounds on the animal were consistent with a predation event. To my knowledge it is rare for a mountain lion to scavenge on a carcasses it didn't kill itself—so I would say it killed this elk."
According to Bowersack, it's only the sixth or seventh time that MDC's Mountain Lion Response Team has collected evidence of a mountain lion preying on an elk in Missouri. The Mountain Lion Response team was formed in 1994. Since then, there have been 117 confirmed sightings of mountain lions at locations throughout the state.
The department's official stance is that there is not a "known population" of mountain lions that is actively reproducing and inhabiting the state year round. "Some of the evidence suggests that these are sub-adult animals dispersing out of their core range," Bowersack says. "But we’ve also seen what look like adult animals, and it’s hard to say if those animals are going between Missouri and other states on an annual basis, or if they’ve potentially set up shop here in the Midwest."
Genetic samples gathered at kill sites and from road-killed lions show that some of the big cats in Missouri are traveling from far-away home ranges in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. “The closest confirmed reproducing populations in the region would be in South Dakota or Nebraska,” says Bowersack. “There hasn’t been any confirmed breeding in any Midwestern states yet.”
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Southeast Missouri is home to most of state's elk herds, and the majority of them live in the nearly 24,000-acre Peck Ranch Conservation Area—not far from the site of this recent predation event. The MDC began reintroducing elk in 2011 by transplanting animals from neighboring Kentucky. Recent estimates show that there are approximately 280 elk in the state. The MDC holds both early-season archery and late-season rifle hunts for elk. Permits are awarded through a random draw system.