Cougars again prowl across US
Jun 14, 2012 / 7:16 am
Cougars are again spreading across the U.S. Midwest a century after they were hunted to near extinction in much of the region, a new study says.
The findings, detailed in The Journal of Wildlife Management, showed 178 cougar confirmations in the Midwest and as far south as Texas between 1990 and 2008.
Researchers said the study poses fresh questions about how humans and livestock can co-exist with the re-emerging predators, who have made startling appearances in recent years in downtown Santa Monica, California, and a Chicago alley.
Wildlife officials have for years said it's unclear how many of the animals may be in the Midwest, where they are not federally protected and, in some states, can be hunted.
"We (now) know there are a heck of a lot more cougars running around the Midwest than in 1990," said Clay Nielsen, a Southern Illinois University wildlife ecologist who co-authored the report while heading the non-profit Cougar Network's scientific research. "We've got an interesting and compelling picture to talk about now.
Researchers relied on carcasses, cougar DNA from scat and hair samples, animal tracks, photos, video and instances of attacks on livestock across 14 states and Canadian provinces to measure the number of cougars east of the Rocky Mountains.
While confirmed sightings of the large cats in the Midwest were sporadic before 1990, when there were only a couple, that number jumped to more than 30 by 2008, the study shows.
Scientists long had suspected that cougars were migrating from the West or South Dakota's Black Hills mountain range, where populations have been so abundant that the state has staged a yearly hunting season targeting mountain lions since 2005.
Researchers theorize cougars are inhabiting the Midwest again following a "stepping stone" dispersal pattern, moving out of a dense population, stopping at the closest patch of available habitat and examining it for mates and prey before moving on.
One male cougar made its way as far as Connecticut, where it was hit and killed by a vehicle.
Such cougar dispersal "is what they're programmed to do. Young mammals, even young humans, tend to move away from home," said Paul Beier, a Northern Arizona University conservation biology professor who studies cougars. "They once occupied the midwestern U.S. There's still some appropriate habitat, and this is how they'll find it."
Cougars are known to be largely secretive and mostly keep to riverbanks and wooded areas, usually avoiding humans while feeding on deer, turkeys and raccoons.
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