Cougars Moving Into U.S. Midwest, Western Suburbs

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Channel
January 21, 2005
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.

In June of 2004 a cougar was found killed by a train near Red Rock, Oklahoma—the first such animal confirmed in the area in a century. Even more remarkable was the fact that the animal was wearing a tracking collar that had been attached in Wyoming's Black Hills, some 670 miles (1,080 kilometers) away. The cat had roamed farther than any previous collared cougar by a considerable margin.

Nielsen is attempting to map potential cougar habitat and migration corridors throughout the Midwest. He also hopes to identify possible hurdles to their movement.

"Some say ample deer populations are pulling them East," he said. "I don't know if that's true, but if they eventually recolonize, they will find plenty of deer to eat. But what are they going to find as far as habitat if they make it here? They need forest cover, and the wintertime agricultural Midwest is a bleak landscape for cougars, except in forested areas."

"A lot of mountain lion biologists have asked the question; Whitetail came back [in the Midwest and East]—will mountain lions come back too?" said mountain lion expert Steve Torres, a senior wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game in Sacramento. "Some have thought that maybe there's too much habitat fragmentation now, but the exciting thing is that we still don't know."

"I think that in 10 or 20 years it will be very telling, in terms of large-scale reestablishment of populations," Torres continued. "Somehow people think that we've perturbed the environment so much that it's not possible, but look at [the growing] black bear populations. Lots of large mammals, including mountain lions, have reestablished themselves in ways that are remarkable."

Living in Cat Country

While some cats are moving east, others appear to be moving a bit closer to populated areas—or vice versa.

Last week residents of midtown Palo Alto, California, were warned of a cougar on the prowl in their neighborhood, where another big cat was treed and shot last May. The community is not unique. As human development fragments traditional western U.S. cougar habitat, such interactions seem to be on the rise, and many residents are on edge.

The actual danger of cougar attack remains very low. Even in California, where a booming human population shares space with some 4,000 to 6,000 cougars, the Department of Fish and Game reports that there have been only 13 verified attacks on humans in California since 1890. Just six of those were fatal.

But such incidents are more frequent than they were a decade ago. Nine of the 13 attacks have happened since 1992, and the Department of Fish and Game receives hundreds of annual reports of cougars preying on pets and livestock.

These solitary, nocturnal hunters generally avoid humans and populated areas, but are they becoming more comfortable around people?

"It's surprising how little we know about them, with regard to their ability to inhabit areas adjacent to humans," Torres said.

"Habituation is a difficult term," he cautioned. "Does some level of habituation [mean that they are] more predisposed to attacks?" Torres asked. "I don't think that there are any strong data to support that—beyond the fact that there are more people to encounter mountain lions and possibly more mountain lions in certain areas."

"It's important to point out that [cougar habituation] is a hypothesis. It does have some merit, because other species habituate, and it's reasonable to think that [cougars] may do it to some level."

But Torres cautions that habituation, if it is in fact occurring, does not mean that the cats are becoming more likely to attack.

"If anything. they demonstrate their aversion to attacking people," Torres said. "If they at some level were predisposed to attack, these encounters would be much more common."

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