More than a century after they were wiped out in the Midwest, cougars, or mountain lions (Puma concolor), are once again staking a claim to the region. Wildlife ecologists Michelle A. LaRue of the University of Minnesota, Clayton K. Nielsen of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and colleagues analyzed data collected from 1990 to 2008 by the Cougar Network. The scientists and the nonprofit group counted only those reports of cougars that had been confirmed by wildlife biologists, and they accepted only physical evidence, such as carcasses, tracks, photographs, videos, and DNA traces. The team found strong trends of cougars’ increasing numbers in an area of more than 1.2 million square miles covering states from Texas and Louisiana north to the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. They recorded 178 confirmed reports.
Evidence from carcasses, the most prevalent form of confirmation, shows that three-fourths of the long-distance dispersers are males. (The DNA from a cougar killed by a vehicle last year in Connecticut showed the animal came from the Black Hills of North Dakota, some 1,800 miles away.) Cougars appear to travel using one patch of preferred habitat as a stepping-stone to reach another. They thrive in forested areas with steep terrain, few roads, and scant human presence.
Given their rarity and habitat preferences, it is unlikely that cougars are coming to a neighborhood near you. But like bears, coyotes, and wolves before them, cougars will test the ability of humans to accept the presence of top predators recolonizing parts of the continent. (The Journal of Wildlife Management)