By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Kansas is no longer a mountain lion-free state.

Or at least it wasn't for a short time, after a hunter snapped a few quick photos with a camera as he sat in tree stand overlooking a massive pile of corn.

Officials with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks on Monday confirmed the lion as real.

While they wouldn't provide much detail about the lion, it likely was spotted along the Saline River northwest of WaKeeney.

Officials aren't saying who the hunter was or exactly where the photos were taken, other than northwest of WaKeeney.

It is the first free-ranging mountain lion spotted in Kansas in more than a hundred years.

To be sure, KDWP officials know there was one in Barber County in 2007. In fact, a Medicine Lodge man was charged with killing the mountain lion he spotted on his property in November 2007. The landowner eventually paid $75 in court costs and entered a diversion agreement on a single charge -- continued possession of a cougar.

The Trego County lion was photographed Oct. 9.

KDWP officials followed up by visiting the location where the photos were taken and sought to duplicate the photos -- using boards of known size to get a scale of measurement.

No tracks were found, despite intensive efforts to locate them, but officials were able to recreate the scene where the photos were taken, according to Brad Odle, wildlife chief for the western third of the state for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

"It is legitimate," Odle said.

Of seven photographs taken, three distinctly show the lion.

"It's a photo like you and I would take if we were scrambling for a camera," Odle said.

The bow hunter snapping the photograph was in a tree stand at the time and looking for deer when the lion stepped into view.

Although mountain lions long were considered grassland species, since trees have sprung up along river systems, the animals have started using the wooded areas as passageways.

In fact, that's been part of the logic for failing to see mountain lions in Kansas, even though they've been spotted in states surrounding Kansas.

The idea has been that the lions were using wooded river systems as a means to travel across the state without being detected.

Without some kind of evidence -- photographic, road-kill or, as in the case of the Barber County lion, a carcass -- KDWP could not confirm their presence.

There have been plenty of reports, however.

There was some evidence of a mountain lion on the University of Kansas campus back in 2003. That evidence was later discounted because of problems with the lab testing scat supposedly from the animal.

There was also the case of a 17-year-old Alma cross-country runner who got knocked down from behind. The runner thought the animal responsible was a mountain lion.

KDWP officials could not, however, confirm any tracks. It had rained and the road had been graded.

"We don't have any real reason not to believe the kid," big game-furbearer biologist Matt Peek said at the time. "We would probably call it inconclusive. There is no obvious reason not to believe what the kid said. And he believes it was a mountain lion."

In the case of the Trego County lion, the photographs serve as evidence.

Based on the photographs and the eyewitness account, Odle said it appears the lion was about 5 feet long head-to-tail.

"The photos are real sketchy," he said. "They were taken at sundown, at last light."

Odle said he and biologist Marc Gray took to the tree stand to try to confirm the photos, and were able to duplicate it as the site where the lion photos were taken.

"We spent 21βΡ2 hours walking around looking for tracks and nothing," he said.

They were able to find deer tracks, but nothing from the soft-padded tracks of a mountain lion.

No matter. Odle is convinced.

"In my mind, there's no doubt what it was," he said.