Last December, on a Monday afternoon, a conservation officer for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources answered a call about a reported mountain lion in Bourbon County. The officer arrived and met the property owner, who had made the call.
The property owner told the officer that while she was walking her dog, a Rhodesian ridgeback, it had treed a large cat, that she believed to be a mountain lion. They checked the tree, but no cat was found. The dog was released from the kennel, and within a few minutes it had again picked up the lion’s scent. The officer and the owner followed the dog through the woods, where the property owner spotted the cat in the fork of a tree.
The officer shot the lion, a course of action that had been agreed upon by the department prior to his arrival.
The name of the person who reported the mountain lion was not released in the agency’s investigative report. She reportedly knew nothing about it until it was flushed from a woodpile by her dog, which later treed the animal.
For reasons unclear, photos of the dead mountain lion were posted on social media, igniting a firestorm of controversy. The state wildlife agency came under withering criticism for killing the top-tier predator that has not been seen in the wild in Kentucky for more than a century.
Amid the controversy and public outrage that swirled around killing the cat, one question outshone the others: How did a healthy, adult mountain lion end up in a tree on a Bourbon County, Kentucky, farm?
The enforcement branch of the state game agency opened an investigation to find out. After nearly nine months of exhaustive work, including a DNA analysis of the dead cat, investigators released their findings.
They don’t know.
“We’ve exhausted all our leads,” Maj. Shane Carrier said via a news release. “We have conducted our investigation and worked jointly with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officers to determine how this animal arrived in Kentucky. We are unable to definitely say who brought the lion into the state.”
The DNA report was equally vague. The one-page report, which was prepared by Dr. Michael Schwartz, conservation genetics team leader for the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana, and Kristine Pilgrim of the same agency, stated in part: “Preliminary substructure analysis shows that the animal is most closely related to individuals from the Black Hills breeding population of Wyoming and South Dakota.”
Kentucky game officials are pretty sure the cat didn’t get from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Bluegrass of Kentucky without help. State law prohibits persons from possessing “inherently dangerous animals,” including lions.
A necropsy revealed that the cat was a healthy 5-year-old, 125-pound male with no outward signs of having traveled 1,200 miles through rough country. The five-page report noted the lion’s “good body condition with good to excellent subcutaneous fat stores … mild wear of the distal tip of the claws … hair coat condition is good … foot pads are soft … minimal wear of the teeth.”
Game officials also said it is notable that no prior reports or trail camera photos of the cat have surfaced.
“This animal was in remarkably good condition with few cuts and scars and no broken teeth or claws often found on wild mountain lions of the same age,” said Stephen Dobey, a large animal biologist for the state game agency. “If this lion came here from the Black Hills on its own, it would have moved across South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and into Kentucky during the peaks of those states’ big game and deer hunting seasons. That means moving past thousands of hunters on the ground and possibly tens of thousands of infrared trail cameras.”
Much of the public anger swirled about the officer having killed the lion. But according to the report filed by the investigating conservation officer, that decision came from the fish and wildlife headquarters before he arrived on the scene. “On the way to the complaint I made contact with my supervisor and a wildlife biologist with the department,” the report states. “The biologist advised that if it was a mountain lion it needed to be euthanized due to the fact that a tranquilizer gun was more than 2 hours away and it would be dark in 30 minutes. He advised that public safety was our main concern.”
Wildlife enforcement officials certainly have their suspicions about the cat’s origins and how it came to be in Bourbon County. But for now, the investigation is closed.
The agency’s full investigative report, including the DNA analysis, is available at fw.ky.gov.
Readers may contact Gary Garth at firstname.lastname@example.org