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Mammals

Cougar
(Puma concolor)

What to Do if You See a Cougar

If you see a cougar: Do Not Run. Do not surprise the cougar. Make noise to ensure that the cougar is aware of your presence. A cougar is not likely to attack a person unless it feels trapped, provoked or you appear to be prey (which is why you should not run). If you are in a group, gather everyone together if possible and move as a group.

Respect the cougar’s space and do not approach it. If the cougar sees you, stand your ground, look as large as possible by standing up straight and putting your arms up in the air and slowly back away. If possible, go inside a building or get into a vehicle. If a cougar makes contact with you, always try to fight it off. Throw rocks, use sticks. Do Not Play Dead.  

Description & Identification

Cougars, also known as mountain lions or pumas, have a tan or tawny coat, with white or cream-colored chin, undersides, and inside of legs. The ears are rounded, and the back of the ears are solid black to dark gray. The tail is long (up to half the total body length), thick, and tipped with black. Cougars less than a year old have dark brown spots.

Photo: Jeanne Drake, courtesy Cougar Network
Mountain lion walking in the snow.

Average Length: 60 to 95 inches

Average Height: 27 to 31 inches at the shoulder

Average Weight: 115 to 160 pounds (adult male); 75 to 110 pounds (adult female)

 

Photo: Jeanne Drake, courtesy of Cougar Network
Juvenile mountain lions have spots.
Cougars less than a year old have spots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cougars are substantially larger than other cat species found in Illinois. The man in the diagram below is six feet tall.

Tracks

Photos: Linda Hunter
Photos of cougar tracks.
Illustration showing differences between cougar and dog tracks.

Animals Mistaken for Cougars

Cougars are typically very elusive, so most sightings last only a few seconds. In Illinois, domestic dogs, domestic cats, and bobcats (Lynx rufus) are the animals most commonly misidentified as cougars.

Photo: Michael Jeffords
Bobcat in a tree.
Bobcats are sometimes mistaken for cougars, but bobcats are much smaller and have spots and short tails.

In addition to their large size, there are several distinguishing features of cougars that can help in positively identifying them. The chart below highlights the differences between the species most commonly mistaken for cougars.

 

Description Cougar Bobcat Dog
Weight (adult) 75 to 240 pounds 10 to 40 pounds 20 to 180 pounds
Length (adult) 60 to 100 inches 30 to 35 inches 25 to 60 inches
Height at shoulder (adult) 27 to 31 inches 20 to 23 inches 10 to 26 inches
Color Solid tan with cream undersides (young have dark spots) Tan with cream undersides; adults and young with dark spots (may not always be visible on adults) Variable fur color
Face Round face; short muzzle;No fringe of fur Fringe of fur makes face appear rounded; short muzzle Round to long face; elongated muzzle
Ears Erect; Rounded; No ear tufts; Backside of ear dark with no white spot Erect; Tufts make ears appear pointed; backside of ear dark with white spot Erect or floppy; Variable ear shape and color
Inner legs Cream colored; no spots Cream colored; dark spots visible Variable fur color
Tail 21 to 35 inches; carried low with curl at tip 5 to 6.5 inches; carried close to body 3 to 12 inches long; often curved upward
Tracks 3 to 4 inches; no claw marks 2 to 2.5 inches; no claw marks  2 to 3 inches; claw marks

 

Confirmed Sightings in Illinois

Four cougar carcasses have been confirmed in Illinois between 2002 and 2019. A cougar was killed by a train in Randolph County in 2002. Another was killed by a bow hunter in Mercer County in 2004. A third male was shot and killed in the Roscoe Village neighborhood in Chicago in April 2008. The fourth was killed by Illinois Conservation Police at a farmstead in Whiteside County. All were sub-adult (2-3 year old) males. DNA analysis indicates these four animals were genetically similar to cougars from South Dakota and strongly suggests that these are all wild males dispersing from that western population.

Images taken by trail cameras in Jo Daviess County (September 2012) and in Morgan, Pike and Calhoun County (October and November 2012) were confirmed by IDNR to be a live cougar. Given the long distances typically traveled by cougars, and the proximity of the counties (especially Calhoun, Morgan and Pike), it is possible that the camera images may have shown the same individual.

Similarly, trail camera images taken from Sangamon and Effingham counties in November 2014 were confirmed to be of a cougar. The distances and chronology of the images suggest that they may have been of the same animal.

Legal Status

Cougars were eliminated from Illinois before 1870 due to habitat loss and hunting pressure. In the last several years there have been confirmed sightings of individual cougars moving through the state. There is no evidence that resident breeding populations of cougars exist in Illinois at this time. As populations in South Dakota, Nebraska and Rocky Mountain states increase, it is possible that cougars will disperse through Illinois in search of new territories.

Cougars have been protected in Illinois since 2015. Cougars may not be hunted, killed or harassed unless there is an imminent threat to person or property. If you feel that your person or property is being threatened, contact the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to learn about options available to address potential threats.  The IDNR may issue a nuisance animal permit and assist you with control measures.

Report a Sighting

If you have recently seen a cougar in Illinois, please report the sighting to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Reviewable evidence is very helpful during efforts to identify the animal and the location. Please provide any documentation including original images of individual animals or tracks that you were able to obtain.  When documenting tracks or other sign, be sure to photograph individual tracks as well as groups of tracks. Include in the image an object to aid in the determination of size including a ruler, tape measure or common object of standard size (coin/paper money, business card, etc.). Also include images of the wider area where the tracks were found, including the tracks and other local features that can be located if the tracks are destroyed.

An IDNR biologist will review the information provided and attempt to use this information to confirm the species and location of the sighting.

For More Information

The Cougar Network

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Cougars in Wisconsin