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When it comes to cases of mistaken identity, mountain lions have it rough.
They're occasionally confused with bobcats, or, to add insult to injury, household tabbies.
Thursday, a mountain lion that was reported to be chasing a deer on Boys Town property near 144th Street turned out to be a large tan-tinged German shepherd.
But officials say they take mountain lion sightings seriously — as should the rest of us — because they aren't all tricks of the eye.
Just hours before the mistaken Boys Town sighting, police shot a mountain lion in a neighborhood on the north side of Des Moines. The cat had been spotted two hours earlier at an elementary school four blocks away, the Des Moines Register reported.
Indeed, mountain lions — also called cougars and pumas — are out there. The cats' numbers are up in the western United States over the past 20 years, so young males such as the one killed in Des Moines are wandering east, pushed out by dominant males.
Because mountain lion kittens are born throughout the year, the cats can be on the move any time of the year, said Sam Wilson, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's mountain lion authority in Lincoln.
But they're more likely to be spotted in the fall because people are out hunting and setting cameras on trails. There's also less cover for the secretive species, with corn and other crops being harvested and leaves falling.
“It's just the time we're noticing them,” Wilson said.
Nebraska has confirmed 73 sightings east of the Panhandle since 1991, he said. The Pine Ridge has the only documented females in the state. All of the cats shot by law enforcement and hit by vehicles in recent years have been young males. That includes the mountain lion shot near 114th Street and West Dodge Road in Omaha in 2003. He recovered and now lives at the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Until the Des Moines shooting, Iowa had confirmed only two cat visits in the past 12 months, said Vince Evelsizer, a biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in Clear Lake. A trail camera captured a photo of a cat in Clinton County, which adjoins the Mississippi River, in September 2011.
Authorities shot a young male within the city limits of Blencoe, near the Missouri River in Monona County, in December 2011.
Evelsizer said the Des Moines lion's teeth and claws, and the lack of any tattoos or other identifying marks, indicated that it was a wild animal, not a pet. The department may conduct DNA analysis to try to determine its origins. So far, the lions killed in Iowa have come from the Black Hills — also a source of cats coming through Nebraska.
The Des Moines lion was discovered by a resident walking from his home to his backyard greenhouse. He backed away and called 911 on his cellphone.
Police arrived and went into the yard. The cat took off, and an officer shot it.
In the Omaha sighting Thursday, a couple called 911 after spotting what they believed was a mountain lion chasing a deer across 144th Street into a soybean field. Boys Town police investigated. The sighting also was reported to the game commission.
Kara Neuverth, a Boys Town spokeswoman, said a farmer who works the Boys Town-owned field told investigators that he'd seen a large German shepherd chasing a deer across 144th Street. The investigators confirmed that a large German shepherd that had accompanied someone staying on the Boys Town campus had gotten loose that day.
“We take every sighting very seriously,” Neuverth said.
The Nebraska Humane Society's Mark Langan has logged hundreds of mountain lion calls since 2005. Most are tagged “UTL” for “unable to locate”; a few turned out to be house cats.
But then there's Omaha in 2003 and the lion found dead along Interstate 80 in Sarpy County in November 2005.
Wilson, the game commission biologist, encouraged people — particularly hunters with trail cameras — to call the commission if they think they've spotted a lion or a lion track.
After all, we know they're out there.
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