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 or 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 the animal. 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.
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)
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.
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.
|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 have 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 6½ inches; carried close to body||3 to 12 inches long; often curved upward|
|Tracks||3 to 4 inches; no claw marks||2 to 2½ inches; no claw marks||2 to 3 inches; claw marks|
Confirmed Sightings in Illinois
There have been eight confirmed cougars in Illinois between 2002 and 2022. A cougar was killed by a train in Randolph County in 2002. Another cougar was killed by a bow hunter in Mercer County in 2004. In April 2008, a cougar was shot and killed in the Roscoe Village neighborhood in Chicago. All of these were sub-adult (2 to 3 year old) males. DNA analysis indicated that these animals were genetically similar to cougars from South Dakota and strongly suggests that these were all wild males dispersing from that western population.
Images taken by trail cameras in Jo Daviess County in September 2012 and in Morgan, Pike, and Calhoun counties in October and November 2012 were confirmed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to show 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 cougar.
A cougar was killed by Illinois Conservation Police at a farmstead in Whiteside County in 2013.
In November 2014, trail camera images taken in Sangamon and Effingham counties were confirmed by the IDNR to show a cougar. The distances and chronology of the images suggest that they may have shown the same animal.
There was a confirmed sighting of a cougar captured on a trail camera on private property in Whiteside County on September 28, with field confirmation on September 29, 2022. IDNR experts believe it may be the same cougar that was struck and killed in DeKalb County on I-88 on October 16, 2022. That cougar was transferred by the Illinois State Police to an IDNR wildlife biologist and was then delivered to the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana for a full necropsy and DNA analysis. The University of Illinois analysis will provide valuable information to biologists about the animal, its place of origin, and exploratory movements of cougars across the Midwest.
In October 2022, the IDNR was monitoring another cougar reported in western Illinois. This animal had a GPS collar that was originally attached in November 2021 by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) as part of an ongoing research project on their mountain lion population, including movement patterns. The young male cougar made its way to Springfield, where it was determined that the animal may pose a potential threat to people or property. The cougar was tranquilized by staff with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services and sent to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana.
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 signs, 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 or paper money, business card, etc.). Also include images of the wider area where the tracks were found, including the tracks as well as local features that can be located if the tracks are destroyed.
An IDNR biologist will review the information provided and attempt to use it to confirm the species and location of the sighting.
For More Information
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Cougars in Wisconsin