for National Geographic News
At one time, spotting a cougar in the eastern United States ranked alongside an encounter with Bigfoot or a UFO. But over the years, the rise in cougar tales has sparked an interest in wildlife officials and cougar enthusiasts alike. Now, four wilderness lovers have formed a new network to trace cougar presence from the prairie to the eastern seaboard.
"There was a need for somebody to really document what the cougar status is in the East," said Ken Miller, one of the Eastern Cougar Network's (ECN) four founders.
The founders spent a year compiling research and sightings from eastern states, talking to fish and wildlife officials and cougar biologists, and implementing a rigorous system for confirming cougar presence. The ECN Web site debuted earlier this month.
"The thing just slowly evolved," said co-founder Bob Wilson, a high school biology teacher in Kansas. The four men worked by phone and email to put together the network. "Before we knew it, we were little boys working on a real fun project."
One of the network's most striking accomplishments is a map of the cougar presence in the eastern United States. Sprinkled with dots that mark probable and confirmed cougar encounters, the map suggests that cougars may be crossing from legend into reality. "When we started putting this together, it became really compelling," said ECN co-founder Mark Dowling.
While this doesn't mean that the mountain lions are returning in force, it does suggest a comeback for these animals once thought extirpated from the eastern half of North America. "Whether or not this is happening, we're probably not going to know for sure for the next ten years," said Wilson. "But it gives us a tantalizing picture that these mountain lions might be coming back."
Mountain Lion Mystique
Cougar, puma, mountain lion, catamount, pantherby any name, this big cat has inspired wilderness lovers across the country. "There's just a basic enthusiasm for mountain lions," Wilson said. "They're beautiful, they're graceful. It's kind of a link with the past."
The fourth-largest cat in the world, cougars in North America once ranged from coast to coast. With wild lands cleared for agriculture and game hunting on the rise, populations of cougars and other large predators took heavy hits. By the 1960s, cougars dwindled in the western states and were declared extinct in the East.
One of the cougar's former haunts was the state of Iowa. The last historical record in the state occurred in 1867. But in the late 1990s, wildlife officials started to get reports of these large cats on the prowl.
Initially officials didn't believe the sightings. "We thought these guys were spending too much time at the bars," said Ron Andrews, furbearer resource specialist with Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
But the reports kept trickling in. In 2001, two weeks after the state had announced that a few wild cougars might be present, a run-in between car and cougar provided wildlife officials with the first tangible evidence of the cat's existence. Scientists examined the teeth and claws of the animal, and determined the cat had been living in the wild.
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