Cougars move to reclaim the Midwest

New count shows that 178 have passed through from the west to the east, but females are few and far between.

The cougars are coming.

The big cats, long a rare sight in Minnesota, are moving in rising numbers from the Rockies and the Black Hills into the Midwestern states where they were once common, according to wildlife researchers who this week published a map of 178 documented cougar sightings in 14 states between 1990 and 2008.

Five occurred in Minnesota, and state wildlife officials say there have been another 10 sightings in the past four years.

"It starts to paint a clear picture that cougars are definitely attempting to recolonize the region," said Clayton Nielsen, an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University and lead investigator in a long-running project to track cougars' eastward spread. "They haven't yet."

Nielsen and Michelle LaRue, a graduate student in conservation biology at the University of Minnesota, published their map and analysis of the predators' likely spread in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Even though cougars are still extraordinarily rare outside the West, LaRue and Nielsen said it's not too soon for state wildlife managers to start preparing a public that's lived without the big predators for 100 years.

The first question, of course, is how dangerous are they to people?

Not very, the researchers said. Cougars have been known to track humans, and there are a handful of attacks annually in Western states. "But the risk is so low it barely requires a mention," Nielsen said.

But in the West, it's not unusual for wildlife officials to offer instructions on how to discourage cougars and safely handle an encounter with one. On the theory that cougars should be discouraged from learning to consider people as prey, the experts say: Do not run. Pick up small children immediately. Back away, talking loudly, and try to make yourself look bigger than the cat. And if it attacks, fight back.

'Steppingstone'

Cougars, also known as mountain lions, are the most widely distributed wild cat in the United States and once occupied a swath from southern Canada to South America. But they were largely eradicated by 1900 in the East and Midwest, and confined to the wild regions of the Western mountains, along with a small population in the Everglades in Florida. In 1973 they were placed on the endangered species list in the East.

Since 1990 three known breeding populations have been established outside Western mountains and deserts -- first in the Black Hills of South Dakota, then in western Nebraska and the Badlands of North Dakota. Most of the 178 sightings documented in the research paper are believed to be animals from one of those places, scientists said.

The researchers describe it as a "steppingstone" pattern as cougars make the leap from one area of appropriate habitat to the next that is closest.

The Black Hills "is thriving," Nielsen said. "It's close to the maximum number that can live there. That's why we have dispersers from the Black Hills."

Like wolves, cougars spread when young males leave home to find new territories and mates. They have been known to travel thousands of miles through cornfields, across highways, golf courses and around cities. So far, however, the males' eastward hunt has mostly been fruitless because females, a critical part of the population equation, will travel only much shorter distances from home, LaRue said.

The longest recorded distance for a female was about 700 miles, she said, and that was highly unusual. Compare that with the male cougar that traveled 1,500 miles from the Black Hills through Minnesota and ended up under the wheels of an SUV in Connecticut last year. Only a fourth of the 56 carcasses in the study were female.

But most of what is known about cougars is based on their behavior in the wide-open spaces of the West, LaRue said.

Now, as they move through a Midwestern landscape dominated largely by cities, suburbs and agricultural fields, the behavior of females could be different and could change their colonization patterns, she said.

"This is a new biology for them," she said. "Will a female keep going if she doesn't find anything? Or will she turn around? It's unknown."

Dan Stark, a predator specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said three female cougars have been found in Minnesota in the past two decades, one accompanied by two kittens. But they were most likely captive animals that had escaped or been released by their owners, he said. It is illegal to keep cougars as pets in Minnesota, and it is also illegal to kill them.

Still, it will be a long time before cougars become established in Minnesota, if ever, experts said. That's not because of a shortage of habitat -- on the contrary, compared with most states Minnesota has enormous tracts of hilly forested land ideal for cougars and more than enough of its favorite prey, whitetail deer. But the Black Hills and the Badlands are 600 or more miles from northeastern Minnesota, and in between are farms and open grassland that act as a barrier to a female, she said, though a male could make it.

"There would have to be one female that gets all the way to Minnesota," she said. "And then they'd have to find each other."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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