In the Shawnee National Forest
Are there Mountain Lions (Puma concolor) in the Shawnee National Forest? Do cougars tend to pass through the forested portions of southern Illinois? Is there a standing population of mountain lions in the Shawnee National Forest? Some say there is plentiful populations of mountain lions in the Shawnee while others say they are extinct from the region. This blog acts as an official press release of Hiking with Shawn and the upcoming video series ‘Project Cougar‘.
A little bit about the Cougar…
The Mountain Lion or Cougar (Puma concolor) is the largest of the cat family in the United States. At one time, the cougar was one of the most widely-distributed land mammals on earth. Before massive timbering of the virgin growth forests, development of civilization and merchant hunting took place during early settlement in the United States, it was likely that most areas of the nation was being inhabited by these large cats. In Illinois, especially in the southern portion of the state, old tales and memories of the past had included cougars roaming the virgin growth forested land that has long been devastated by man and his will to develop the new world. In southern Illinois, at one time, mountain lions were not the only large predator mammal occupying the area, black bears and gray wolves were also intertwined into the mix inhabiting the region. As settlers started timbering, hunting these large animals and developing communities – these critters were driven out of the region to escape to more natural untouched environments suited for their survival needs. Officially, there are no major cougar populations within the Shawnee National Forest and the southern portion of Illinois as of today. However, some people debate that claim and have even said they have witnessed these large cats in the area in recent times. According to the Cougar Network, a biological resource organization made up of biologists, zoologists and members of the science communities, confirmed the carcass of a male cougar in early July of 2000 in Randolph County near the community of Chester, Illinois. This has been the only official confirmation of a cougar in the region for the past several decades (not counting the confirmations in the northern portion of the state).
The Great Cougar Debate…
While keeping up with the newly posted content on the Shawnee National Forest group on Facebook, I have at many times stumbled upon posts about cougars being seen in the Shawnee National Forest. Many people agree that they are there while many other people do not agree that they are in the forest. The debate is that multiple confirmations of cougars have been found to be within the Missouri state lines and that these animals can easily swim across the rivers to get to the southern Illinois region. Since the establishment and creation of the Shawnee National Forest, more spots would be available for cougars to populate in dense and practically undisturbed areas of the forest. I am a skeptic. I will admit that cougars probably pass through the region (as some are known to travel up to 1,000 miles) but I feel that there is no population of them in the forest. Cougars are very territorial animals. Usually every 100 square miles where cougars are present will only have 3 or 4 cats in the area. Cougars do not travel in packs and they are very solitary. Cougars are known to become aggressive and attack other cougars who “trespass” in their “home regions”. The Shawnee National Forest only consists of a few hundred thousand acres of land all of which is not completely forested. The likely environment of mountain lions in the Shawnee National Forest would be the bluff areas of the forest, areas which are commonly sought after by hiking and equestrian forest users. I’m skeptical because many folk often hike and ride in the remote areas of the forest where cougars would likely be and there isn’t a single photo or video that CLEARLY shows a cougar – that is odd when everyone has a phone that can take these photos and videos. Cougars may be secretive but even out west where cougars are officially populating, videos and photos are always being updated showing human interaction and encounters with such cats. Why is that not happening here if some say there is a large population of cougars in the Shawnee National Forest?
I feel that just having a skeptical opinion and response to this situation isn’t very effective or practical. This has lead me to the creation of a new upcoming film project for Hiking with Shawn called, Project Cougar. Project Cougar will consist of me heavily researching mountain lions, the behavior, their movement, attacks and interaction with humans, tracks, scat, prey, living environment and as much information as I can push into my head. I basically plan to become somewhat of a amateur cougar expert within the next several months. In the winter months, when it will be much easier to complete, I will be doing a several week field investigation of whether or not cougars are in the Shawnee National Forest or not. My investigation will be non-intrusive meaning I will not attempt to interact with the cat if one is found. I’ll be wearing camouflage, donning a gillie-suit and being very carefully and quiet during my investigations. I’ll be searching for potential tracks, dissecting scat and probing potential prey as well as sleeping environments of elements that would favor a cougar host. I’ll be documenting everything through video and photo. No commercial activities will be involved in this project nor any sort of harvesting and/or collecting within the forest. If I find evidence of a cougars, I’ll likely contact the US Forest Service as well as Illinois DNR to discuss with them first and then I’ll release the video and photos to the public via-my YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn. All project investigations will only be done on forest/public land. The purpose of this project will be mainly for science in many ways but also to help justify whether or not mountain lions are in the Shawnee National Forest or not. As a person who hopes that cougars, black bear and gray wolves return to the forest one day, I hope that my project will prove me wrong about me being skeptical but at this time, I am certain that I will likely not find an existing cougar population in the Shawnee National Forest.
How You Can Help!
For most of this project, in terms of field activities, I’ll be going at this alone. The less participants involved in field work, the more quiet you can be when searching for an elusive, quick and predatory animal. However, I am asking for the help of those who would like to support my efforts by providing me with valuable information. I am looking for reports and sighting of where cougars have been seen in the Shawnee National Forest. Again, this is a study of cougar populations in the forest/public land areas. I’m not interested in any information about sightings on private property unless the owner of the property gives me exclusive rights to be on the property and conduct my research for the video series. If you have any information that could help me, please contact me specific for this project by emailing me at ProjectCougar@HikingWithShawn.com with such useful information. NOTE: Please do not contact me to give me inaccurate information or incomplete information (i.e. I seen one at such and such spot but I don’t want to tell which spot it was) as I am looking for suitable intelligence data for the purpose of this project.
On an ending note, I hope I can prove myself wrong but I highly doubt I will. I will be doing this project with an open mind, though. And again, this will be completely non-intrusive. If there are cougars present, the last thing I’d want is interactions between humans and the animals to occur. I’m doing this for research, I’m doing this for fun and I am doing this to help ease the debate that the Shawnee community seems to continue to have.
Thank you all for reading this entry and all of your support. I hope to report more on this project soon before the actual field work starts to begin. Please feel free to comment down below with your thoughts, opinions and feedback on Project Cougar and thanks again for reading this blog post. Please share it, especially on social media if you have enjoyed reading it.
Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.