Confirmed sightings of mountain lions in Nebraska and western Iowa are no fluke.
The big cats are re-populating their historical range, according to a new study.
American mountain lions, or cougars, are re-emerging in areas of the U.S., reversing a century of decline, says The Journal of Wildlife Management.
The survey of Midwestern big cats excluded the largest population base of the animals, in South Dakota's Black Hills, but proximity to that population is why Nebraska led the survey with 67 of the 178 confirmed sightings.
A new study found 178 scientific confirmations of cougars in the 14 largely Midwestern states and some Canadian provinces from 1990 to 2008. Here's the study's breakdown of the 172 confirmations by U.S. state:
— Nebraska, 67
— North Dakota, 31
— Oklahoma, 12
— Texas, 12
— South Dakota, 11
— Missouri, 10
— Arkansas, 8
— Louisiana, 5
— Minnesota, 5
— Iowa, 4
— Illinois, 3
— Wisconsin, 2
— Kansas, 1
— Michigan, 1
The findings raise new conservation questions, such as how humans can live alongside the 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 Michelle LaRue of the University of Minnesota.
LaRue said there is hard evidence that the population in the Black Hills and the West has spread and that cougars are re-establishing populations across the Midwest, including in northwest Nebraska.
“What's happening in Nebraska is a piece of the larger puzzle and not unique,” said Sam Wilson, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission mountain lion authority in Lincoln.
Everywhere in the lower 48 states where mountain lions once existed has had increased cougar sightings, Wilson said.
Nebraska Game and Parks has documented more than 60 sightings outside the Pine Ridge since 1991. The Pine Ridge is Nebraska's only documented breeding big cat population.
Cougars in other areas of Nebraska with appropriate habitat — the Wildcat Hills along the North Platte River — were young roaming males, Wilson said.
“These young, dispersing males don't hold to any area,” he said. “A mountain lion seen near Lincoln or Omaha could be in Missouri or Minnesota within a few months. As far as we know, they keep wandering.”
Mountain lions are found in a variety of habitats, but prefer rougher, wooded areas. The abundance of prey, especially deer, is considered the most essential component of cougar habitat.
Three main cougar populations exist in the Midwest, centered around the Black Hills of South Dakota, where they are so abundant that there has been a hunting season since 2005.
Cougars, however, are venturing far outside of this range, the study shows. One Black Hills male cougar was found to have traveled to Connecticut. The study confirmed the presence of cougars from Texas and Nebraska to the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba.
Researchers LaRue and Clay Nielsen worked alongside scientists from Southern Illinois University and the Cougar Network to analyze cougar sightings reported since the 1990s.
They characterized confirmed sightings, assessed habitat suitability and confirmed re-established cougar populations.
The team's other evidence included carcasses, tracks, photos, video, DNA evidence and cases of attacks on livestock. Only sightings verified by wildlife professionals were included.
The results revealed 178 cougar confirmations in the Midwest, a number that increased steadily from 1990 to 2008. About 62 percent of the sightings took place within about 12 miles of habitat considered suitable for cougars.
Beyond Nebraska's confirmed sightings, the survey showed 31 in North Dakota, 12 each in Oklahoma and Texas, 11 in South Dakota (outside of the Black Hills) and 10 in Missouri.
Seventy-six percent of recovered cougar carcasses were males, a finding that suggests they are leading a stepping-stone dispersal of the cougar population, LaRue said.
The question now is how the public will respond after living apart from large carnivores for a century, LaRue said.
“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,” he said.
Nebraska's response plan calls for destroying a mountain lion if it threatens people, or if it is attacking or attempting to attack livestock. Mountain lions not threatening people and not causing livestock depredation are left undisturbed.
The Legislature this year approved a bill allowing for a mountain lion hunting season when Game and Parks approves.
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