February 15, 2008

Mountain Lions Migrating Across U.S.

States in the Midwest and South that have not been home to mountain lions in the past century are starting to see some migrating big cats within their borders.

Wildlife officials say their numbers may increase if the trend of more females roaming into their regions continues.

On Feb. 5, wildlife officials using DNA confirmed that a cat seen about 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee on Jan.18 was a lion -- Wisconsin's first confirmation since 1905.

Two days later, a 100-pound male lion was killed by a conservation officer in Scottsbluff, Neb. There's new evidence lions are not just wandering through the state, but making it their home.

John Kanta, a regional wildlife manager with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, said the migration is due in part to the fact that the Black Hills of South Dakota are saturated with mountain lions. Young males, he said, are often forced out by older cats.

Most reports of mountain lions -- also known as cougars and pumas, among other names -- traveling hundreds of miles across the country in recent years involved males. Now, Kanta said, researchers are noticing female pumas beginning to make their own long-distance treks and looking to breed. That, he said, holds the potential for a far greater impact on states throughout the central USA, from Wisconsin in the north to Arkansas in the south.

"We know these large predators can re-establish themselves in areas where they've been eliminated," said Adrian Wydeven, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources ecologist.

Such a scenario could be set in motion if a male cougar finds a mate in suitable terrain, said Mark Dowling, co-founder of the Cougar Network, a non-profit research organization.

Last year, the body of a cougar kitten was found near Chadron, Neb. That was significant, as it probably represented the state's first evidence of reproduction in modern times, said Sam Wilson, manager of the non-game mammal and furbearer program with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.


*Montana. A female puma from South Dakota's Black Hills turned up in Montana's Custer National Forest. That's about 130 miles from its home in the Black Hills. Earlier, a female puma was killed by a landowner more than 300 miles east of the Black Hills.

* Missouri. The Department of Conservation's Mountain Lion Response Team has confirmed 10 instances of mountain lions in the state since 1994.

*Arkansas. Arkansas contained the highest percentage of potentially favorable habitat -- 19% -- among nine states studied by Southern Illinois University Carbondale wildlife ecologist Clay Nielsen and SIU graduate research assistant Michelle LaRue. Although much of the Plains is considered unsuitable for pumas, the research by Nielsen and LaRue suggests that large parts of the central USA hold strong potential to support them, particularly the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas, as well as parts of Oklahoma and Minnesota.

Martin reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.