Keeping track of cougars in the Tri-States

This cougar was captured by a trail camera in Morgan County, Illinois in 2012.

Experts say there are growing numbers of mountain lions roaming the Midwest.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources there have been 18 confirmed sightings or tracks in the state.

Since KHQA's Melissa Shriver covered this story in 2011, Missouri's confirmed sightings jumped from 15 to 45 in just roughly two years. Click here to see the latest map of confirmed sightings.

Perhaps the most surprising are the recent sightings in Illinois, which mean the big cats are crossing the Mississippi River. So far there are 8 confirmed sightings in Illinois since 2002. Click here to read more from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

"I plugged in my camera and couldn't believe what I saw," Morgan County hunter Mark Cobb said.

Cobb can still remember the feeling he got when he saw a picture of a cougar on his Morgan County trail camera in the fall of 2012. It was the first mountain lion ever caught on camera in the state of Illinois.

"My hair stood on end," Cobb said.

That cougar caught on camera is one of many moving into our neck of the woods. Mountain lions used roam the Midwest, but early settlers pushed them west more than one hundred years ago. But according to Mark Alessi, Assistant Wildlife Chief with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, mountain lion populations are growing in Wyoming and South Dakota, which is pushing some big cats south.

Are we actually seeing more mountain lions these days?

"We are confirming more reports of mountain lions in the past 10 or 12 years than we did prior to that," Alessi said. "That population in South Dakota is at saturation and as those animals continue to breed, and the young males continue to disperse, it is likely that Illinois and other states are going to continue to see more mountain lions showing up."

All confirmed sightings have several things in common. One of them is that all cougars seen are subadult male lions who are searching for their own stomping ground. Mountain lions are very territorial. One male guards his group of females and kicks out any young males before they can challenge him. That's sending those male lions traversing through nearby states.

"They're in healthy condition, they're just out looking for mates," said Alessi. "The females don't disperse as far and because of that the males are always moving around the landscape looking for females."

So far the Illinois DNR has confirmed eight sightings within the state.

Is there a breeding population in the state of Illinois?

"We are not aware of any breeding population in the state," Alessi said. "We're not aware of any instances where someone has reported a female here in the state. That's not saying it can't occur. We have done research with habitat modeling to see where cougars would come into the state if that were to occur, looking at suitable habitats and there are suitable habitats in the state. But for them to get here it's going to take a long time for those females who don't move much to get here. It could happen; but we don't think its happened yet."

"Illinois is likely acting as a pass through for a lot of these animals," said Alessi. "Until they have mates in the state, there is really no reason for those males to stay here."

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources adds that while sightings are up, there is no way of knowing just how many are here. Mountain lion territories are big - sometimes as large as 100 square miles. So experts say multiple trail camera pictures in one region could indicate several cougars --or just one. There's no way to know without physical evidence like a cougar kill.

The most recent confirmed sighting was a mountain lion shot by a conservation agent last fall in Whiteside County. A farmer contacted the Department of Natural Resources. Then conservation agents tracked the cat to a pipe under a corn crib at a farm. It was euthanized on the request of the land owner.

Mountain lions frequent hilly, isolated areas with plenty of big game, perhaps one of the reasons several have been spotted in the Tri-States.

However, because they stay away from people as a whole, Cobb says he doesn't expect to see another one in his lifetime.

There are thousands of mountain lion sightings reported to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources every year. Just a handful are determined to be what's called a "confirmed sighting." A "confirmed sighting" is one that can be proven with physical evidence, like fur, a trail camera picture or an actual mountain lion carcass.

A lot of research also goes into confirming photos. When someone submits a photo, wildlife biologists are dispatched to the area to confirm it. It's also important "not" to erase any photos from your digital card if you do in fact catch a cougar on camera.

Why? Believe it or not - people try to fake photos.

Has technology helped or hindered your job?

"We get a lot of false reports," Alessi said. "We get a lot of pictures, primarily from other states that circulate through chat room forums. There are a lot of pictures that have been manipulated. We're in the wildlife business, but we've become pretty good at determining real pictures from fake pictures."

Mountain lions are protected in Missouri, but the wildlife code allows for people to kill them if protecting themselves from attack.

In Iowa and Illinois mountain lions are not protected.

Click here to learn more from the Cougar Network.

Coming up Friday on KHQA This Morning, meet some Tri-State hunters who had a near run-in with some big cats. They say it hasn't kept them from the tree stand.