Trail camera captures rare photo of cougar

Cougar caught by Mark Cobb's camera. (Courtesy of Mark Cobb)

After Mark Cobb and his 12-year-old son Matthew finished an early morning deer hunting trip Sunday, he sat at the kitchen table and checked pictures from one of his two trail cameras, hoping they would show a prized buck he could track.

As Cobb, 50, of Sherman, scanned through the photos, he came upon an image time-stamped at 12:21 a.m. that blew him away.

Near a tree where he had planted deer scent, the motion-triggered camera clearly captured a cougar loping in the woods of west central Illinois, 30 miles west of Springfield near Jacksonville.

"Its incredible, you always get the racoons and the squirrels and that kind of stuff. This was a hit-in-the-gut kind of moment," said Cobb, who has hunted for nearly 40 years. "Everybody standing around in the house thought I had a big deer ... They came over to see the big deer and it was like seven people taking a large gasp at the same time."

Cobb's photo has been authenticated by state officials who went to the location where the picture was taken, according to Chris McCloud, a spokesman with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

It is among the clearest photos taken of a cougar in Illinois in recent memory, and it's also just the fourth time since the animals were driven from the state in the late 1800s that there has been a confirmed sighting, McCloud said.

Every year the department receives dozens of reports of sightings of the animals but either there's no photographic evidence or the quality of the photos makes it virtually impossible to authenticate the reports, said McCloud.

"It is rare to get a photo that clear and that true," McCloud said of Cobb's photo. "It's very clear what the animal is ... It's a very impressive photo."

There have been several recent cougar sightings in the northern suburbs, though none has been confirmed. In 2008, however, one of the big cats was shot by police in an alley in the Roscoe Village neighborhood on Chicago's North Side. The animal's remains are at the Field Museum, said McCloud.

Bears and wolves have also made their way into Illinois in the past decade or so. According to a recently completed survey by the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, seven gray wolves, three cougars and two black bears have been spotted in Illinois since 2000.

Wildlife officials believe the animals may have traveled from the Dakotas through Wisconsin. The cougar in Cobb's photo may have followed the Mississippi River downstate, said McCloud.

Cobb said that on Sunday, he went bow-hunting with his son in an area near where the photo had been taken hours earlier. He didn't know about the cougar until he checked the cameras later that day.

"We were hunting in tall grass, it kind of makes you think what could have happened," Cobb said.

State officials believe the cougar may have just been passing through.

But his son, who started hunting this year, has refused to go back out with his father unless he can carry a gun, Cobb said.

"I don't expect to run into it. That don't mean I won't think about it," said Cobb. "Everybody's been talking about cougars being here, but to have the proof of it is neat."

chicagobreaking@tribune.com

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking