By Lisa Black and John P. Huston, Chicago Tribune reporters
Cougars are elusive, wide-roving creatures that rarely pause for photographs.
But after the most recent sighting of a large cat on the North Shore — this time in Winnetka — a wildlife control specialist on Wednesday installed cameras throughout the community in hopes of confirming its existence. Authorities also sifted the sand traps at a Winnetka golf course for signs that it had been used as a giant cat litter box.
The presence of a cougar prowling the lakefront communities is “absolutely possible,” said Robert Erickson, the DeKalb wildlife specialist hired by Winnetka to track the animal, also known as a mountain lion.
There have been confirmed cougar sightings in the Midwest over the past few years, but they remain rare.
“I don’t have high hopes, just because the animal normally doesn’t stay put,” Erickson said, adding that cougars can travel up to 18 miles a day. “That cat could be in Grant Park by now for all we know.”
The recent Winnetka sighting was at 8:30 p.m. Monday, reported by a family driving east on Willow Road, just east of the Skokie River. They told police that a long, sleek animal was on the parkway between the street and the sidewalk, said Joe Pellus, Winnetka deputy police chief.
“They saw an animal they hadn’t seen before, and they knew by the way it looked and walked that it wasn’t a coyote,” Pellus said.
Winnetka officials contacted the Illinois Department of Natural Resources before contracting with Erickson, who is licensed by the state as a wildlife expert.
There have been several cougar reports on the North Shore this summer. A Glencoe public safety officer reported seeing one in late July, and Northfield fielded a similar report from a resident in June, according to authorities.
None of the sightings has been confirmed.
“The first step is to just document whether there is an animal in the area,” said Bob Bluett, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.
“There have been an increasing number of documented appearances in Missouri and Iowa and other Midwestern states, all linked to a population in the Dakotas,” Bluett said. “The ecology of the animal is such that when a population pretty much gets saturated, the young males will take off and pioneer into new areas and can make some long-distance movements.”
Erickson put it more colorfully: “I would assume this is a 2-year-old male that kind of got tired of where they were and got booted out by mom. They’re like teenagers in trouble.”
In 2008, scientists verified through DNA tests that a male cougar shot in Chicago was related to animals from the Black Hills of South Dakota, raising the possibility that it journeyed 1,000 miles. Before showing up in Chicago, the same cougar had been spotted a few months earlier in a barn in southern Wisconsin, where it left a bit of blood that was tested and matched.
A cougar would find abundant food and shelter within the forest preserves, thick with deer and cover, authorities said. The experts also suggested that the animal might not need to kill its prey, given that many deer this year have died of a virus called epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD.
The virus is not passed from animal to animal, so the cougar would not catch the disease by eating a sick deer, officials said.
The dead or dying deer could offer “a food source for the mountain lions that is very easily acquired,” said Katie Sweeney, animal control officer for Glencoe.
Officials have found no paw prints or other evidence of a cougar in Winnetka. They said it likely would have crossed through golf courses during its travels, but authorities have found no scat in sand traps.
Erickson installed motion-triggered infrared trail cameras that can shoot multiple photographs, then send them to his cellphone and computer, “which I will be monitoring all night,” he said.
Officials have no plan for what they would do with a cougar if they found one.
“In general, we don’t advocate killing an animal that’s not causing trouble, but by the same token we realize a community is in a better position to assess risks than someone sitting in Springfield,” said Bluett, the state wildlife biologist.
The animals are not protected by wildlife laws in Illinois, he said.
For information on confirmed cougar sightings, go to http://cougarnet.org/.
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