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Rare Visitors to Illinois: Large Carnivores

Mountain Lions
(Puma concolor)

What to Do If You See a Mountain Lion

If you see a mountain lion, do not run. Do not surprise the animal. Make noise to ensure that the mountain lion is aware of your presence. A mountain lion is not likely to attack a person unless it feels trapped or provoked or if 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 mountain lion’s space, and do not approach the animal. If the mountain lion 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 mountain lion makes contact with you, always try to fight it off. Do not play dead.  

Description & Identification

Mountain lions, also known as cougars 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. Mountain lions less than a year old have dark brown spots.

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

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.
Mountain lions less than a year old have spots.






Mountain lions are substantially larger than other cat species found in Illinois. Size comparison between a six-foot-tall man and a mountain lion.


Photos: Linda Hunter
Photos of cougar tracks.
Mountain lion tracks with a tape measure and a glove for scale.

Mountain lion tracks are round in shape, typically 3 to 4 inches in length and 3 to 4½ inches wide. They walk with their claws retracted (pulled in), so if the track has claw marks then it is not a mountain lion track. Inexperienced observers often mistake the tracks of coyotes or large dogs for mountain lion tracks. The diagram below points out easy ways to tell the difference between mountain lion and dog tracks.

Graphic showing the difference between a mountain lion track and a large dog track. A mountain lion's paw print will have toe marks that are slanted at an angle while the dog's two front toes will line up in a straight line. Claw marks may be present in dog tracks, but mountain lions retract their claws while walking.

Animals Mistaken for Mountain Lions

Mountain lions 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 mountain lions.

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

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


Description Mountain Lion 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 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 Mountain Lion Sightings in Illinois

There have been eight confirmed mountain lions in Illinois between 2002 and 2022.  A mountain lion was killed by a train in Randolph County in 2002. Another mountain lion was killed by a bow hunter in Mercer County in 2004. In April 2008, a mountain lion 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 mountain lions 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 mountain lion. Given the long distances typically traveled by mountain lions and the proximity of the counties (especially Calhoun, Morgan, and Pike), it is possible that the camera images may have shown the same animal.

A mountain lion 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 mountain lion. The distances and chronology of the images suggest that they may have shown the same animal.

There was a confirmed sighting of a mountain lion 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 mountain lion that was struck and killed in DeKalb County on I-88 on October 16, 2022. That mountain lion 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 mountain lions across the Midwest.

In October 2022, the IDNR was monitoring another mountain lion 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 mountain lion made its way to Springfield, where it was determined that the animal may pose a potential threat to people or property. The mountain lion 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.

Legal Status

Mountain lions 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 mountain lions moving through the state. There is no evidence that resident breeding populations of mountain lions exist in Illinois at this time. As populations in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Rocky Mountain states increase, it is possible that mountain lions will disperse through Illinois in search of new territories.

Mountain lions have been protected in Illinois since 2015. They 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 IDNR to learn about options available to address potential threats. The IDNR may assist you with control measures.

Report a Mountain Lion Sighting

If you have recently seen a mountain lion 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