In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, it’s common to see “Warning: Mountain Lion Habitat” at trailheads.
This has not been the case outside of the western United States, but all that is changing. Mountain lions, also known as cougars and pumas, are recolonizing the mid-western United States, reversing 100 years of decline, according to a new study in The Journal of Wildlife Management.
The study covered an area of over three million kilometres, confirming the presence of mountain lions from Texas, Arkansas and Nebraska to the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. In these states, the population of mountain lions has jumped up from less than a hundred in 1990 to about 30,000 today.
Three established breeding populations now exist in the upper midwest, in North Dakota, the Black Hills in South Dakota, and Nebraska, but mountain lions have been venturing far outside this range.
One male from the Black Hills was found to have traveled 2,900km through Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York, before being hit by a vehicle on a highway in Connecticut, 70 miles from New York City.
Nebraska Has The Largest Number Of Mountain Lions
The state with the largest number of cougars found was Nebraska, with 67, followed by North Dakota, 31, but they were discovered as far south as Texas and Louisiana.
The scientists said their research had important implications for conservation strategies and advised wildlife agencies to plan public information campaigns.
From The Guardian:
Dr Clay Neilsen, the principle investigator, from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and director of scientific research for The Cougar Network, said: “What’s really interesting is what this means for people living in the midwest who have lived without large carnivores for a hundred years.”
Neilsen said that while attacks on humans are rare, public awareness campaigns and conservation strategies such as the ones already in place in Nebraska and Missouri are needed.
“For those states that haven’t got plans for these animals being part of nature, wildlife agencies should be making them.”
“It’s only a matter of time before most of the states in the midwest should be getting ready for cougars.”
A cougar weighs between 100 and 200lbs, and their prey usually consists of white-tailed deer, elk and porcupines. There are a couple of attacks, occasionally fatal, on humans every year in the midwest, according to Neilsen. He stressed that such attacks were “very rare” as cougars are wary of humans and are fleeting, solitary creatures.
How Will The Public Respond After 100 Years With No Mountain Lions?
Clearly, public awareness campaigns and conservation strategies must be put in place across these midwestern states; so far, only Nebraska and Missouri have mountain lion response plans.
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.
Humans And Mountain Lions Don’t Mix
Last month, in Santa Monica, California, the killing of a mountain lion by authorities, after it wandered into a popular shopping area, sparked outrage. A year ago, a mountain lion wandered into the backyard of a Redwood City, California, neighborhood, and was also shot by authorities, who declared that they didn’t have a tranquillizer big enough for such a large creature, so in the name of safety, they had to kill the big cat.
A similar incident happened in Berkeley, California, in 2010.
Several questions arose in all three of these incidents: Were authorities too hasty to kill the mountain lion? Should they have angered him less and given the tranquilizer more time to kick in? Should law enforcement agencies provide more training for dealing with situations involving domestic animals and wildlife?
The increase in mountain lion numbers may not be such good news for the mountain lions.
Photo Credit: pamelainob (Pamela Schreckengost)