for National Geographic Channel
Over the past 18 months the Cougar Network has documented 21 cougars in nine midwestern U.S. states and one Canadian province. The big cats had been long absent from places like Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Manitoba.
"These aren't [just] sightings," explained Mark Dowling, a co-founder of the nonprofit research organization. "This is a carcass, DNA evidence, or a picture that can be verified. [About] once a month in the Midwest we are getting a cougar carcass in the back of a pickup."
"It wasn't until 1990 that we began to get some real confirmations in states where they hadn't been for 100 to 150 years," Dowling added. "The frequency of confirmation has definitely been accelerating each year."
Some of the cats have ended up in Iowa, where Ron Andrews works with that state's Department of Natural Resources in Clear Lake.
"We have three carcasses, one road kill, and two that were shot," Andrews reported. "I'd say that four or five years ago we started getting a few reports but basically wrote those off as misidentifications or people who'd spent too much time in bars. But as more came in, we thought we'd better examine the remote possibility that there were mountain lions in the state. Two weeks later one turned up dead on the side of the road."
Cougars (Puma concolor) are also known as mountain lions, panthers, and pumas. Whatever the name, Andrews reports that they've caused quite a stir.
"There is a lot more hysteria in Iowa than in other states," he said. "I think it's the agricultural thought process to overreact to the very low possibility that mountain lions might be present and how that might impact livestock or livelihood. We also see 'puma paranoia,' where people stop doing normal outdoor activities because some phantom lion might be out there."
Go East Young Cougar?
While some of the midwestern animals could be domestic escapees, autopsies have determined that many of the cats appear to be of wild origin. The majority are young males, who often naturally strike out from the territories of older, more dominant males to claim their own turf.
"In many cases we think that they are probably dispersing from established western populations," said Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and director of scientific research for the Cougar Network. "Five years ago people would have laughed at that idea, but there is mounting evidence that there may be an event of natural recolonization."
Researchers note that, though two Manitoba females were found late last year, there is little evidence of breeding populations expanding.
Dispersing animals may follow natural pathways, like river courses, from heavily populated areas into new habitat.
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