Group: Cougars may be recolonizing in the Midwest

Monday, October 24, 2005

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Out deer hunting with some pals last December, Kenny Tharp couldn't believe what he found dead, curled beneath a pine tree. It was a 98-pound cougar -- a rarity in Illinois.

Tharp had heard folks around that northwest Illinois area talk of seeing the animals also known as mountain lions, but his find near New Boston was the state's second confirmed cougar sighting in more than a century.

Both of the Illinois cases came in the past five years and reports of cougar spottings have recently increased elsewhere in the Midwest. Now, a nationwide effort is scratching for hard evidence to see if there are more big cats in middle America, where they thrived many generations ago.

The Concord, Mass.-based Cougar Network is sleuthing for proof -- carcasses, cougar DNA from scat and hair samples, and verifiable photos -- to measure the number of cougars east of the Rocky Mountains. Some scientists believe the cougars are migrating from the West or South Dakota's Black Hills mountain range.

No government agency tracks the number of large, exotic cats across the country. Wildlife officials say it's unclear how many may be in the Midwest, where they are not federally protected and, in some states, are subject to being hunted.

Sightings of the big, long-tailed cats in the Midwest are legion -- and notoriously unreliable. Bobcats, which are far more common in the Midwest, are often mistaken for mountain lions.

The generally reclusive animals were hunted to near extinction in most of the Midwest by the early 1900s. Populations of mountain lions managed to survive over the years in remote, mountainous areas out West, but there's nothing verifiable to suggest they lived in the Midwest over the years besides in South Dakota's Black Hills, said Dave Hamilton, a Missouri Department of Conservation research biologist.

Cougar Network officials believe that may be changing.

Across the Mississippi River in Missouri, a young male cougar with no signs of having been in captivity was killed by a vehicle in August 2003 near Fulton. That marked at least the eighth confirmed case of such an animal in Missouri since a hunter shot a small adult female cougar in 1994 near the Mark Twain National Forest.

Missouri is taking the cougar issue seriously. Since 1996 the state has deployed a specially trained, evidence-collecting "Mountain Lion Response Team" whenever there's a credible sighting of cougars, Hamilton said.

The 10-person group includes wildlife experts, law enforcement and biologists.

The big cats have made their presence known in several states.

For example, in June two mountain bikers in North Dakota came face to fang with a cougar they say followed them for more than a mile, coming within 10 feet of them a few times. The 45-minute ordeal ended when the two chased off the animal by throwing rocks and sticks at it while screaming.

In Nebraska, an 80-pound mountain lion was captured in October 2003, deep inside Omaha's city limits. Mountain lions had not turned up in that state for more than a century until 1991, when state officials determined one had killed a deer.

Meanwhile in Iowa, three cougars have been killed since 2000, all on the west side of the state.

Some biologists suspect that many of the cougars in the Midwest are younger males who may have been driven out of western states by dominant males or by urban sprawl perhaps squeezing their habitats. These youngsters may be moving east, following natural pathways such as river corridors in search of hunting territory.

Biologists suspect some lions may be migrating from South Dakota, where an estimated 145 mountain lions are said to roam the South Dakota side of the Black Hills.

South Dakota's first hunting season targeting mountain lions got under way Oct. 1. Eleven cougars had been killed as of Oct. 19, three of them females. A 25-lion quota has been set for the Black Hills, though the season will end on Dec. 15 or whenever five breeding-age females have been killed.

Though it's unclear if -- or how many -- cougars have drifted out of South Dakota, Nielsen believes that southern Illinois and Missouri's 1.5-million-acre Mark Twain forest would be comfortable digs for the animals. Both areas offer dense woods and underbrush for mountain lion cover and rest, and an abundance of deer for prey.

"They'd have all the food they ever wanted, as long as we didn't shoot them," Nielsen said.

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