March 12, 2008

Missouri Has Prime Cougar Habitat, Study Says

Big cats thrived in Missouri before they were hunted to extinction here in the early 20th century. A new study contends much of their habitat remains intact and their numbers could one day rebound.

"Someday we may have cougars in these potential habitats, but it's going to take a lot of movement west to east for that to happen," Clay Nielsen, assistant professor and researcher at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, told the school's news bureau.

The study by Nielsen and a graduate assistant shows Missouri has some of the most promising habitat for big cats of any state in the Midwest. The two-year research project surveyed experts and examined satellite imagery of nine states, finding that Missouri's potential habitat was second only to that of Arkansas.

Sixteen percent of Missouri is suitable for cougars, Nielsen found, meaning it boasts better habitat than the Dakotas, which have small breeding populations.

Cougars, also known as mountain lions, require large expanses of undeveloped land: Adult males range as far as several hundred square miles. They prefer dense forests, high grass and large deer populations for food. The study singled out the Mark Twain National Forest as fertile habitat.

Conservation officials say it's premature to be worried that the 150-pound cats might be roaming Missouri's landscape in the near future.

Cougars were once found across the nation but are now confined to Western states and a small patch of Florida swampland. The last native Missouri cougar was killed in the Bootheel region in 1927.

"I can't forecast the future, but I'd say it'd be less likely rather than likely," Jeff Beringer, resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said of a breeding cougar population in the state.

Beringer is part of the Mountain Lion Response Team dispatched to investigate every sighting of a Missouri cougar that is backed up with evidence such as a photo or paw print. The team, formed in 1996, travels to as many as 40 sightings a year but has confirmed only 10 sightings since 1994.

Solitary and secretive, cougars are the stuff of legends, and the vast majority of sightings in Missouri and other Midwestern states are either misidentifications or pranks.

"One thing we learned is that eyewitness accounts are essentially worthless. ... The only thing that matters are sightings confirmed with tangible, physical evidence," said Mark Dowling, co-founder of the Cougar Network, a not-for-profit group that researches cougar expansion into former habitat.

Occasionally a juvenile male cougar makes its way east along a swath of forest. Dowling said river corridors are "funnels," because the band of vegetative cover encourages cats to move in straight lines for hundreds of miles. The Missouri River is an east-west funnel for wildlife.

Ultimately, experts say, whether Missouri's habitat can sustain cougars is less in doubt than whether people allow their return.

"The question isn't so much the biological needs, it's the social caring capacity," Dowling said. "Are people going to tolerate having these animals around?"