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Cougars Are Returning to the U.S. Midwest after More Than 100 Years

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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They go by a lot of names: mountain lions, cougars, pumas, catamounts and more. But people living in the Midwest may soon have a new name for these big cats: neighbor.

Cougars (Puma concolor) have not lived in Oklahoma, Missouri and other midwestern states since the  beginning of the 20th century. But now the cats are returning to and repopulating some of their former Midwest habitats, according to research published Thursday in The Journal of Wildlife Management. (The North American cougar is typically identified as the subspecies P. c. couguar, although cougar taxonomy remains a matter of scientific debate.)

Cougars once lived throughout most of the U.S. and Canada but state-sponsored bounties put in place to protect livestock and humans from what were often deemed “undesirable predators” led to the cats’ extermination in the east and Midwest. (The Mountain Lion Foundation has a timeline of cougar bounties and extirpations as they were wiped out from east to west.) By the second half of the 20th century they mostly restricted to states and provinces west of the Rockies. (The critically endangered Florida panther, Puma, or Felis, concolor coryi, is accepted as a separate subspecies.)

Things started to turn around for the cougar in the 1960s and 70s when, one by one, the bounties were rescinded and states made the animals a managed-game species. Today they are classified as game species in most states and a “specially protected mammal” in California. This allowed their populations first to grow and then to expand their territories. Breeding populations were established in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 1990s then the North Dakota Badlands and western Nebraska in the following decade. The animals appear to have continued their eastward spread from those three locations. They have now been seen in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois and several other Midwest states and Canadian provinces, and the sightings are growing more frequent, according to data compiled in the new paper.

The expansion has been driven by the cougars’ solitary, territorial nature, explains the paper’s lead author, Michelle LaRue, research fellow for the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota. “When a female cougar has males they have to disperse away from where they were born,” she says. This prevents the males from inbreeding with their female relatives and helps them to avoid conflicts with older, more powerful males. “As the different pockets of available territory become no longer vacant they have to go elsewhere. That’s what we think is happening. There are no more pockets of vacant habitat or territories left in the west. They’re forced to go elsewhere, and elsewhere happens to be the Midwest where there’s habitat but no competing cougars.”

LaRue and her fellow researchers examined 178 confirmed Midwest cougar sightings from 1990 to 2008. These included carcasses (animals killed by cars, trains or hunters) as well as scat and tracks, along with camera and video evidence. The number of confirmed sightings during this period increased steadily each year, from two animals in 1990 to 34 in 2008. By comparison, the total population of cougars in North America is estimated at around 30,000 animals. Of the 56 carcasses found, 76 percent were male, typical of the gender’s role as the primary dispersers of the species.

“They’re doing what we think is a stepping-stone dispersal,” LaRue says, “going from a primary source to another patch of habitat, establishing that habitat and then moving farther and farther east.”

Co-author Clayton Nielsen, assistant professor of forest wildlife in the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, says DNA evidence taken from some of the carcasses further proves the eastward migration by linking the animals to the genetics of existing populations. “In the cases where those samples were analyzed, we could pinpoint the specific states where those animals originally came from,” he says.

Cougars are generalist predators, so LaRue says they can select any habitat with enough prey. They have also been shown to walk hundreds of kilometers in search of new habitat. “They have no problem traveling through cornfields or prairies for long distances if they have to,” she says. But cornfields and prairies aren’t suitable habitat for the cougars to settle in. She says they require forest cover, rugged terrain and dispersal corridors (typically rivers) that allow easy migration for both the cats and their prey. “They’re a stalk-and-ambush predator so they need places to hide,” she says.

LaRue says this is probably just the beginning of cougars recolonizing the Midwest. “Now we can start asking more questions: Where are they going to end up, how many are they going to be, and how are they going to interact with their ecosystems?” In the paper, LaRue and her co-authors suggest that wildlife professionals “begin to think about public awareness campaigns in areas likely to encourage dispersing cougars” because people in these Midwest states are not used to living with large predators.  A good model is the California Department of Fish and Game’s Keep Me Wild campaign, which offers tips on coexisting with cougars and staying safe near them. They also suggest the more eastern states follow the lead of Nebraska and Missouri and develop conservation strategies for the animals.

The Midwest might not be the cougars’ final stop in their habitat re-expansion. Last year a male cougar traveled at least 2,400 kilometers from South Dakota to Connecticut before being killed by an SUV.

“The recolonization of former range by cougars is one of the most significant changes in the wildlife landscape of the U.S. in the last few decades,” says Howard Quigley, Teton Cougar Project director and executive director of jaguar programs for Panthera, which was not involved in this study. “One key to the future—and the successful colonization—will be the presence of enough good habitat to support resident cougars.” He also says government agencies, educators and communities will need to come together to develop plans to coexist with their new carnivore neighbors.

In other cougar news, another study published June 13 in Biology Letters tracked animals in Chile that had been mounted with GPS collars and found that their kills (or more specifically, their leftovers) provided an important food source for a half-dozen different scavenger species. “Food provided by pumas may be vital to the maintenance and diversity of scavenger and decomposer communities in Patagonia and elsewhere,” the authors wrote.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photo by the California Department of Fish and Game via Flickr

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sean McCann 12:33 pm 06/14/2012

    Well, that is great news! I hear there were also confirmed records in Ontario as well.

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  2. 2. Scrat 1:50 pm 06/14/2012

    This can only be a good thing in the east, where the lack of large preditors is leading to an unsustainable growth in the population of white-tailed deer, which is leading to degredation of forests. Cougars are not an animal to trifle with – but then again, neither are black bears and we seem to co-exist well enough with them here in the northeastern US.

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  3. 3. ssm1959 2:15 pm 06/14/2012

    Great to see them radiating back. Hopefully they will do as the wolves and prey preferentially on the CWD affected deer first. However, all will not be rosy with the re-establishment of large cats near dense human populations. Pets as well as people also fit the food search pattern for these animals. There will be a need to manage them.

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  4. 4. 1oldsarg 2:53 pm 06/14/2012

    The California experience is probably not a good model. Declaring the species sacred and untouchable had led to it saturating its normal habitat and dispersing into suburbs and populated areas. Since cougars are apex predators with no particular fear of people (cautious, yes. afraid, no) there have been continuing encounters with unfortunate results–for both cougar and human! The Keep Me Wild campaign is well-intended but something a little more aversive might be a better idea.

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  5. 5. vdinets 5:39 pm 06/14/2012

    Scrat: the cougar is one of so-called “soft” predators, which are not terribly good at regulating prey numbers. There is no alternative to wolf reintroduction in the East. Unfortunately, red wolf reintroduction program is still limited to one part of North Carolina, and nobody seems willing to try elsewhere.

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  6. 6. r0b3m4n 5:43 pm 06/14/2012

    ALL RIGHT! Returning to Darwinism 1 fat-slow person at a time. I wonder what the GDP of a cougar is? So when does one consider a predator population as optimized? And in need of hunting tag releasal. Seems a waste to just let the population collapse after they diminish their food supply – especially when you can trophy hunt and eat them instead :) mmmmm nuthing but cute, plump cougars.

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  7. 7. vdinets 5:43 pm 06/14/2012

    Isn’t it funny how Fish and Wildlife rushed to declare Eastern cougar extinct just weeks after proof of its continuing existence was finally obtained in Quebec? I am not even talking about hundreds of sightings in the Appalachians and the Southeast.

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  8. 8. sparcboy 8:18 am 06/15/2012

    Anything that will help where feral hogs are out of control is welcomed with open arms.

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  9. 9. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:44 am 06/15/2012

    There are a lot of differing opinions about cougar taxonomy, but most of the evidence I’ve seen suggests that the Eastern cougar was a separate subspecies. That doesn’t mean the other subspecies isn’t coming into territory where the eastern subspecies used to live!

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  10. 10. dieselpop1 6:12 pm 06/15/2012

    Nuts. I saw a cougar a few miles outside Lawton, Oklahoma in 1972.

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  11. 11. vdinets 10:30 pm 06/15/2012

    dieselpop1: according to US Fish and Wildlife, what you saw was a domestic cat, but since you don’t work for US Fish and Wildlife, you are not supposed to be able to tell the difference ;-)

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  12. 12. HubertB 1:49 pm 06/16/2012

    How can males be the primary dispensers of the species? If only males go into new territory, where would additional baby cougars come from? Even with cougars it takes two to tango.
    Perhaps there has been a small population in the Ozarks and Ouachitas of Arkansas that continued to exist. While most of the trees are second growth, much of the land has never been farmed and provides ideal cougar country.

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  13. 13. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 4:47 pm 06/16/2012

    That’s why it’s not going to be a massive cougar invasion in the Midwest. If 75% of dispersers are male, it will take them a long while to find breeding partners. But both genders are on the move, so eventually they’ll start breeding in new territories.

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  14. 14. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 4:50 pm 06/16/2012

    I’m sure that many of the supposed cougar sightings were a case of mistaken identity, just as I’m sure that many other cases were real. But eyewitness accounts are unreliable (ask any cop), which is why scientists need confirmed proof: photos, DNA, tracks, bite marks on prey, and (the worst cases) carcasses. The Fish and Wildlife people I have spoken with don’t doubt that there are cougars in a lot of places, but hard evidence is lacking of their locations and their origins. (Some DNA of South American cougars has been found, which supports the theory that some sightings are of escaped or released animals.)

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  15. 15. vdinets 4:55 pm 06/17/2012

    Well, there is hard evidence from coastal Quebec. Of course, now that the Eastern cougar is declared extinct in the US, obtaining more hard evidence will be less likely.

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