Cougar Resurgence In The US Midwest
June 14, 2012

Cougar Resurgence In The US Midwest

Brett Smith for

Perhaps spurred on by the success of the ABC sitcom Cougar Town, American mountain lions, also known as cougars, are making a comeback and spreading across the Midwest.

Hunting in the early 20th century decimated the once prolific creature, but a report published this week in the Journal of Wildlife Management, not only said the animal has re-populated and expanded its habitat from enclaves in the American west; it also raised questions on how man will live alongside the growing cougar population.

"Here we present the hard evidence that the western population has spread, with cougar populations re-establishing across the Midwest,” said lead author Michelle LaRue from the University of Minnesota.

LaRue and Southern Illinois University professor Clay Nielsen, along with support from The Cougar Network, analyzed sightings, assessed habitat suitability, and confirmed where cougar populations are being re-established.

The team also recorded cougar carcasses, tracks, livestock attacks, photos, videos, and DNA evidence. They only included sightings which were verified by wildlife professionals, while sightings of animals known to be released from captivity were excluded in an attempt to study only natural repopulation developments.

The results reveal the number of confirmed sightings steadily increasing between 1990 and 2008. About 62 percent of these sightings took place within about 10 miles of habitat that would be considered suitable for cougar populations.

There are three main cougar populations in the Midwest, typically centered near The Black Hills in South Dakota. However, researchers found many cougars are venturing far outside of this range. One male cougar from the Black Hills was found to have traveled 2,900 kilometers to Connecticut before being killed in a traffic accident.

When cougar carcasses were recovered, 76 percent were found to be male. As the Connecticut cougar shows, males are capable of traveling long distances; these findings suggest males are challenging the frontiers of the cougar habitat.

Experts say that limits on cougar hunting and the return of elk and mule deer that the animals prey on have been key steps toward increasing the overall population which is now estimated to be around 30,000.

Population density combined with the natural and territorial instincts of the big cats have forced them to spread out in search of new land, according to LaRue.

"What's happening is that, as the young males are moving out of the areas they were born in, they are coming into contact with other young males and they don't have anywhere else to go so they're kind of being forced out of these western populations and into these areas of vacant habitats in the mid west," she told BBC News.

LaRue added that cougars are a more elusive species than other woodland creatures and don´t seek out interactions with humans.

"They are very fleeting animals they're solitary and they don't like people, they like to be in remote rugged wilderness areas, I say it's a lot less likely than they'll become dependent on trash like bears,” she said.

"If you were in the woods with a cougar and it saw it you wouldn't even know it, it would run before you even knew it was there."