A new in-depth study has confirmed what wildlife biologists long suspected: After a century of decline, mountain lions are repopulating their range in the Midwest.
The mountain lion, or cougar, population dramatically declined after 1900 due to hunting and lack of prey, leaving the remaining big cats isolated to the American West, said University of Minnesota researcher Michelle LaRue.
More than a century later, mountain lions are back and have spread across 14 states, including Nebraska, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba.
Researchers say one male mountain lion traveled about 1,800 miles through Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York before ending up in Connecticut.
"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," LaRue said in the study.
Working alongside scientists from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and The Cougar Network, a nonprofit monitoring group, LaRue and principal investigator Clay Nielsen analyzed cougar sightings reported since 1990.
|There were 178 confirmed mountain lion sightings in the Midwest from 1990 to 2008, according to study results published in The Journal of Wildlife Management.|
Their study covered more than 2 million square miles of territory. In addition to confirmed sightings, they looked at carcasses, tracks, photos, video, DNA evidence and cases of attacks on livestock. Only sightings verified by wildlife professionals were included in the study.
The results, published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, reveal 178 confirmations of mountain lions in the Midwest, with the number increasing steadily between 1990 and 2008.
Researchers say the study raises new conservation questions, such as how humans can live alongside the returning predators.
"The question now is how the public will respond after living without large carnivores for a century," LaRue said. "We believe public awareness campaigns and conservation strategies are required across these states."
About 62 percent of the confirmed sightings took place within 12 miles of habitat that would be considered suitable for mountain lion populations, the study said.
Sam Wilson, fur bearer/carnivore manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said he has not seen the study, but that it "appears to lay out what is happening in Nebraska is actually happening across the Midwest."
As mountain lion populations increase, the big cats need to find new habitat, he said.
"And so they disperse and recolonize areas like the Black Hills, the Badlands of North Dakota and the Pine Ridge of Nebraska," Wilson said.
Most of the mountain lions that seek new territory are young males between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2, he said, because in established populations the dominant male will kill them if they stay.
"Basically, everything outside the (Nebraska) Panhandle has been young males," Wilson said.
Mountain lions are native to Nebraska but were wiped out after the state was settled in the late 1800s. The first modern confirmation of big cats in the state was in 1991 near Harrison in Sioux County.
A scatological study done by the commission in 2010 revealed a resident population of 13 to 28 mountain lions in the Pine Ridge area in the Panhandle.
Wilson said the Niobrara River has good habitat for mountain lions but there is no evidence of any reproducing populations. However, mountain lions have been seen in the area.
As of January, state officials have confirmed 55 sightings outside of the Pine Ridge -- in Omaha, South Sioux City, St. Paul, Harrison and Scottsbluff.
The closest one to Lincoln was a big cat killed in 2005 along Interstate 80 in Sarpy County.
There have been many unconfirmed sightings of mountain lions in Southeast Nebraska, the most recent in York County. One was reported in a yard in Waco, and another on the northeast side of York near an aquatics center.
Wilson said the commission has no evidence the recent sightings in York County were mountain lions.
Nebraska law allows people to kill a mountain lion if it is threatening people or livestock. Since 1991, 24 have been shot or killed by vehicles in the state.