American mountain lions are re-colonizing parts of the United States where they haven't existed for more than 100 years thanks to a rebounding population in the West, a new study says.
The study published today in the The Journal of Wildlife Management, provides evidence of the rise in mountain lion (or cougar) numbers and raises questions about how humans can live alongside the returning predators
Confirmed cougar sightings in the Midwest have increased steadily since 1990, the study says. It also says this rebound means states should prepare management plans, including how to educate residents about the animals and whether they should be protected, said Clay Nielsen, one of the authors of the study and professor of forest wildlife at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
"It's going to be interesting to see how people respond if the population continues growing," Nielsen said.
The majority of dispersing lions are young males looking for their own territories, said Michelle LaRue, a biologist at the University of Minnesota and another author of the study. If females follow, they may begin establishing permanent populations in other parts of the country.
Aggressive hunting by settlers and a lack of prey eradicated the animals from their traditional range. But back they've come. Last year, a 140-pound cat was hit by a car on a highway in Connecticut, the first confirmation of a wild mountain lion in that state in more than 100 years. DNA test confirmed that it was from the Black Hills in South Dakota and had walked more than 1,500 miles.
"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 ", said LaRue.
The Missouri Department of Conservation confirmed 14 mountain lion sightings last year, department spokesman Joe Jerek said. The department had only confirmed 12 sightings over the previous 16 years, he said.
"Essentially, from what we've been able to tell, these are young males dispersing from the west and are just passing through," he said.
The department conducted DNA testing on four of the lions, three of which had been shot and the fourth through hair on a fence. Two were from the Black Hills, one from Montana and one was related to a population in Colorado.
Mountain lions were thought to be almost eradicated in South Dakota in the 1970s. State officials listed them as protected and by the 1990s their numbers had rebounded. In 2005 the state held a hunt to trim the population, limiting the number of animals to 25. This year the quota was 70.
Ellis also reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.