Cougar Reports on the Rise in Eastern U.S.

By Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
March 7, 2003
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, panther—by 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.

Since then, interest—and reports—of cougars in Iowa have grown. "We're still pondering about what's happening out there," said Andrews. "There could be a few free-ranging wild mountain lions in the state." But with thousands of cougars in private hands across the country, it's also possible the mountain lions spotted in the wild could be escaped captives, he said.

"Should mountain lions actually be occurring naturally, we think it's exciting to see these animals come back," Andrews said.

One kink in the cougar story has been how to put North American cats into a family tree. In the early 1950s, the cougar was broken into 15 different subspecies. Currently, two of these subspecies, the eastern cougar (Puma concolor cougar) and the Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi), are listed as endangered by the federal Endangered Species Act.

In 1999, a study by Stephen O'Brien and colleagues at the National Cancer Institute suggested the North American cats may be closer relatives than previously thought.

Many cougar biologists now think that the cats in North America species are so closely related they should be considered a single subspecies. For now, the splits within the cougar species stand, and it's unclear how changing species designations would affect cougar protection.

One thing that is clear is the cougar's comeback. In the West, mountain lion populations have started to boom, with states like Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado declaring the cats completely recovered. The slow reappearance of the animals in the East could be the movements of these large ranging cats.

Increased protection of wild lands and reduced human hunting pressure may have helped the cougars and other predators by protecting the animals and the prey they eat. "Nationwide, there's obviously a wildlife population expansion that's occurring," said Andrews. In the prairie and Midwest, predators like black bears, wolves, and bobcats are beginning to return to spots where they haven't been seen in years.

While most news about the environment may be of doom and gloom, Dowling said, "I think the cougar is a real wildlife success story."

Importance of Confirmation

To make the process of confirming cougar presence more rigorous, the Eastern Cougar Network limits confirmations to specific criteria.

"Sightings can be wrong—people can see a housecat and think it's a cougar," said ECN co-founder Miller. To guard against this possibility, ECN maps only cougar finds determined to be "confirmed" or "probable." A confirmed cougar requires the body of a dead cougar, a live captured cougar, a photograph of an animal, or DNA evidence. To tally a probable cougar encounter, ECN looks for cougar-specific tracks, wounds or kills on prey that mirror a cougar's hunting style, or a sighting by a wildlife official.

The network provides contact information for wildlife officials in eastern states for those who want to report cougar presence, as well as creating a spot for managers to learn what's happening with the cougar in neighboring areas. "Now all the states know what's going on in all the other ones," Dowling said.

Todd Lester, who started the nonprofit Eastern Cougar Foundation in 1998, said that the new network will be a big help in coordinating cougar knowledge across the East.

The founders of ECN hope to continually update their site, compiling cougar reports and working with wildlife officials to learn more about cougar habitat to uncover what areas could be future sites for cougar expansion.

With all these goals, one of the founders has a personal one as well. Wilson, who has spent 20 years capturing wildlife on film, still hasn't seen a cougar. "I would just about give anything to see one in the wild," he said.

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