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Expanding Cougar Population

One of the primary interests of The Cougar Network is the apparent expansion of cougar populations, especially into the Midwest. Detailed below is a brief history of cougar distribution in North America and expectations for the future.

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The Past

The cougar (Puma concolor) is the world's fourth largest cat species and the second largest cat in the New World. It has one of the largest ranges in the world, extending from southern Canada to the tip of South America. In North America, cougars were formerly distributed from coast to coast. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the East was largely cleared for agriculture and the forests that remained were heavily logged. Cougar prey populations (mostly deer) were hunted to near extirpation in many states. This combination of habitat destruction, prey decimation, and extensive large predator control programs resulted in the elimination of the cougar from most of the East, and restricted their distribution in the West to wilderness areas largely devoid of human influence.

The Present

Cougar populations are now expanding from rugged, undeveloped areas into more human-dominated landscapes. Since 1990, increasing cougar presence has been especially evident in the prairie states and the Midwest. Cougar trail camera photos, tracks, feces, and vehicle- or hunter-caused mortalities have been confirmed by wildlife biologists in several Midwestern states and these confirmations have accelerated in the past few years. Two new breeding populations have become established in the last few years, one in the Badlands of western North Dakota and one more recently in the Pine Ridge area of western Nebraska.  In June, 2011 one of the longest distance journeys of a land animal was recorded by DNA analysis of a cougar that originated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was confirmed in Minnesota, Wisconsin and then later in upstate New York and then Connecticut where it was killed by a vehicle 70 miles from New York City!

The Future

How will cougar populations fare in the future, and what will be their ultimate distribution in North America given recent trends? These and other questions are of primary interest to The Cougar Network. If cougars indeed re-colonize the Midwest, what implications will this have to the rest of the ecosystem? The primary reason why cougars were extirpated in the first place was human fear of cougars as predators. Will cougars and humans be able to peacefully coexist, especially given human fears of cougar attacks and potential impacts on prey populations and livestock? These are some of the questions The Cougar Network wishes to address through our research. Answering these questions will be the key to better cougar-human interactions in the future.

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