Cougar sightings are becoming more prevalent in recent years as populations of the American Mountain Lion are re-emerging in areas of the United States. This growth is a reversal of a 100 year decline, new research by a University of Minnesota scientist shows. The evidence was published Thursday in The Journal of Wildlife Management. The author, Michelle LaRue, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, brings up new and crucial questions regarding conservation – such as, "How can humans can live alongside these returning predators."
"The cougar population declined dramatically from 1900, due to both hunting, and a lack of prey, leaving the remaining population isolated to the American west," said LaRue, "Here we present the hard evidence that the western population has spread, with cougar populations re-establishing across the Midwest."
The Midwest U.S. hosts three main cougar populations, centered around South Dakota's Black Hills Cougars are now venturing well beyond this range. A specific male cougar from the Black Hills was monitored and found to have traveled 2,900 kilometers through Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York, before reaching Connecticut.
"While the distance the Connecticut cougar traveled was rare, we found that cougars are roaming long distances and are moving back into portions of their historical range across the Midwest," LaRue said. "Our study took in over 3.2 million kilometers of territory, confirming the presence of cougars from Texas, Arkansas and Nebraska, to the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba."
LaRue was joined in her research by scientists from Southern Illinois University and The Cougar Network. She and Principal Investigator Clay Nielsen analyzed cougar sightings since the 1990s to characterize confirmed sightings over time, assess habitat suitability and confirm where cougar populations are being re-established.
Along with sightings, the team's evidence included carcasses, tracks, photos, video, DNA evidence and cases of attacks on livestock in 14 North American states and provinces. The results show 178 cougar confirmations in the Midwest -- the number steadily increased between 1990 and 2008. About 62 percent of confirmed sightings took place within about 10 miles of habitat that would be considered suitable for cougar populations.
When cougar carcasses were recovered by researchers, 76 percent were found to be male. As the Connecticut cougar proves, males are capable of traveling long distances; this finding suggests males are leading a "stepping-stone dispersal of the cougar population."
"This evidence helps to confirm that cougars are re-colonizing their historical range and reveals that sightings have increased over the past two decades," LaRue said. "The question now is how the public will respond after living without large carnivores for a century. We believe public awareness campaigns and conservation strategies are required across these states, such as the mountain lion response plans already in place in Nebraska and Missouri."