Cougar Comeback

681 words
4 July 2003
Tampa Tribune
Copyright (c) 2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Big Cats Appear To Be Repopulating Eastern U.S.

Florida might no longer be the only state in the eastern United States harboring wild cougars.

The big cats appear to be returning to many states in the Midwest, and a few might have turned up just east of the Mississippi River, according to reports. The spread appears to be following a pattern somewhat similar to the migration of coyotes within the past 20 years. Both species are deer predators, and their increase might be linked to vastly increased numbers of deer nationwide.

The increase in cougars might have remained anecdotal, however, were it not for four amateur naturalists who began to track, verify and quantify evidence of the spread.

Mark Dowling, Ken Miller, Jim Close and Bob Wilson formed the Eastern Cougar Network about a year ago when they discovered a common interest in the big cats.

But unlike some interest groups, such as fans of the legendary Sasquatch, the ECN members vowed to take a strictly scientific approach to investigating cougar reports.

"We give reports of cougar sightings from the general public almost no credence," Dowling said. "We've found that these inevitably turn out to be sightings of bobcats, feral cats or even deer."

Dowling said the group records sightings from established wildlife professionals, as well as "hard" evidence such as road- killed cougars, clearly verifiable tracks, cougar kills, photographs and DNA-tested cougar droppings or hair.

But even with these strict measures, Dowling said, there can be little doubt that wild cougars are popping up in greater numbers in areas far outside their typical western range.

"Cougar numbers are up in the western states because they are no longer bountied and shot as pests," Dowling said. "And we also know that young male cats are often forced out of their home range by the resident toms, so any expanding population is likely to have an expanding range."

There have been verified encounters in many midwestern states in the past decade, Dowling said. And while a few turned out to be from captive cats released into the wild, necropsy reports and DNA tests indicate most have been full-blooded wild cougars.

Remarkably, even heavily developed states such as New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Delaware have produced solid reports.

Dowling said evidence of breeding populations - that is, family groups - is much less widespread.

"When we get a report of a cougar carcass, it's usually a young male, which is what you'd expect with the normal migration patterns," Dowling said. "But it's possible that with continuing migrations, these cats may reach critical mass in some midwestern and eastern woodlands and start to spread more rapidly."

He said the cats appear to follow river drainages out of the west, because the drainages hold the most game and provide cover. But once they hit the woodlands east of the Mississippi, they might travel anywhere.

"Some biologists believe the habitat in parts of the east is really much better than in the west if the animals get established," Dowling said. "There's more cover, more water and a higher density of prey with the increase in whitetail deer."

Dowling said although he is not a hunter, he believes hunters can claim a part of the credit for the apparent cougar comeback.

"Hunters supported the increase in deer numbers both politically and financially, and that is a key factor in reestablishing the cats," he said.

"The big story to me is that the wildlife situation in North America is not all doom and gloom. The cougar is an animal that takes a really healthy habitat to thrive, and it looks like modern conservation measures are allowing this to happen."

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PHOTO; Caption: Tribune photo by FRANK SARGEANT There are thought to be about 80 panthers in Florida. Cougars might be returning to other states east of the Mississippi River, repopulating wilderness areas where they were extinct for nearly a century.