America's Cat Is on the Comeback

Mountain lions were extirpated in the eastern and midwestern United States after Europeans settled those areas, but now they are returning. Where will they go?

Biology Ecology Natural History Nature Conservation Zoology

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November-December 2018

Volume 106, Number 6
Page 352

DOI: 10.1511/2018.106.6.352

In the summer of 2004, I had just snuck into my cubicle at the back of the office at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Madelia after days of traveling around southern Minnesota putting leg bands on geese and searching for collared white-tailed deer that the DNR was tracking.

Coffee in hand, my computer sputtering to life after some inactivity, I learned the news that a mountain lion had been struck by a train—in northern Oklahoma. The location surprised my office mates and me; the large cats were generally known to live in rugged, forested wilderness, not on prairies, and certainly not in Oklahoma.

The Cougar-Female and Young / Buyenlarge Archive/UIG / Bridgeman Images

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As it turns out, this poor cat changed my life. The 52-kilogram, 2.5-year-old male mountain lion that met its unfortunate demise on some railroad tracks in Red Rocks, Oklahoma, in late May of 2004 was accompanied by a story—told by the radio collar it just so happened to be wearing. The journey the cat took, according to its radio collar, led me to realize that only weeks before I learned about it, I may have shared the same space with that very cat—on the prairies of Kansas, of all places. In May 2004 I had been on a field ecology trip to finish out my junior year at Minnesota State University, Mankato. I traveled in a van for nearly three weeks with 19 other students and two professors, searching for snakes, skinks, and other wildlife while learning about the grassland ecosystems of the mixed-grass prairies. Mountain lions were the last thing on our minds. I still think about how amazing the possibility is that a mountain lion and I, someone who would end up studying the species’ recolonization of its former habitats, could have been within kilometers of each other in one of the most unlikely of places.

This cat—eventually dubbed the Red Rocks Cat, or at least that’s what I called it—originated in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Its journey of more than 1,100 kilometers represented, at the time, the longest dispersal distance ever recorded for a mountain lion. What’s more, this incident was not the first time a mountain lion had appeared outside the American West. It seemed that something was brewing and that this cat was an important clue. Fourteen months later, I was in the thick of figuring it out. This cat is the reason I have been studying the range expansion of mountain lions for more than a decade.

Where the Wild Cats Are

Even though it was a surprise to hear about a cougar traversing the prairies of the midwestern United States in 2004, it would not have been so surprising 200 years ago. Mountain lions (Puma concolor; also called cougars, pumas, or catamounts) historically roamed most of the Western Hemisphere, and had one of the largest ranges of any mammal in the world. But because of bounty hunting and habitat loss during European settlement of North America, cougars were extirpated from the eastern and midwestern portions of the continent and were pushed to exist almost exclusively in the rugged wilderness of the American and Canadian West. In the 1960s, however, wildlife management by states in the West reclassified cougars. No longer categorized as bountied predators, they became a managed game species, and that allowed populations to rebound substantially. Since about 1990, states east of the Rockies—from North Dakota to Michigan, down to eastern Texas and Louisiana—have been recording more cougars than at any time in more than a century.

Even before the long-distance travel of the Red Rocks Cat was documented, the number of mountain lion sightings in the midwestern part of North America had been increasing slightly—and wildlife biologists took notice. Why were we seeing a handful of cats in the Midwest? Were exotic pet owners releasing their captive animals into the wild? Or perhaps a remnant population of mountain lions existed in the heart of the Ozarks that had previously gone entirely undetected? Perhaps both scenarios were true. Given that much of the evidence for these animals’ presence in places they shouldn’t be had come from photos or tracks—and given that the use of DNA for forensics and research was still in its infancy—these were pretty good questions. For the most part, individual cougars are nearly indistinguishable, their tracks particularly so, and with the rare exception of a collared animal, DNA testing is the only way to learn about the identity and source population of any cougar. One hypothesis was most plausible: dispersal by young adult males from the West. However, we couldn’t point to a single reason for this new trend. Untangling what factors influenced cougars’ potential recolonization of the Midwest became my research focus in graduate school.

JanzigGeneral/Alamy

Mountain lions are the world’s fourth-largest cat—smaller than tigers, lions, and jaguars—and in many ecosystems in which they occur they fill the role of apex predator. With muscular legs, a long tail that acts as a counterbalance, and powerful jaws evolved for crushing the trachea of their ungulate prey, cougars are the perfect stalk-and-ambush predator. Though best suited for terrain where hiding comes relatively easily, cougars are still an opportunistic species and are found in the deserts of Arizona and the forested mountains of British Columbia alike. Adult animals can vary substantially in size depending on geography, but in North America cougars measure about 0.75 meters at their shoulders and typically weigh 45–77 kilograms. From nose to tip of the tail, they are about 2.1 to 2.4 meters long. Their species name, concolor, is a reminder that their coat is only one color; they are not spotted like their jaguar or cheetah relatives—or like the animal that, by far, is most commonly mistaken for a cougar, the bobcat. (See the sidebar “Can You Identify a Cougar?” below.)

The Cougar Network

That the Red Rocks Cat had made its way to Oklahoma from the Black Hills of South Dakota lent further credence to the hypothesis that increased cougar presence in the Midwest was due to young adult dispersal. This incredible journey also showed, rather importantly, that it was not likely that escaped captive cougars were living in our midst unbeknownst to us. If source populations of cougars—those on the eastern edge of their current range in the North American West—were effectively “full up,” then those youngsters needed to go somewhere. Any habitat patch can hold only so many cougars. So, where would they go? How would they get there? What might residents of the agriculture-dominated Midwest expect as time went on? These were the questions that I set out to answer as a new graduate student, in collaboration with a relatively new nonprofit research group: the Cougar Network.

More than a decade before I or the Red Rocks Cat came onto the scene, three intrepid gentlemen were hatching a scheme on an internet listserv. None of these fellows had background or education in wildlife biology, but they did have a passion for mountain lions. After years of sharing ideas and unlikely hopes of finding the elusive catamount somewhere out East, Bob Wilson, Ken Miller, and Mark Dowling finally met in person at an eastern cougar conference, in Morgantown, West Virginia, in the spring of 1992. In a dark conference center in the hilly river town, this trio quickly realized that the conference wasn’t going to provide what they had hoped to see: Solid evidence of cats presented by household names in the “cougar searching” world, and presentations about methods that they, too, could replicate in their searches. They came away from the conference with the realization that something needed to be done to figure out where—or even whether—cougars were present in the East. It was clear they needed to do it themselves.

Over the ensuing decade, the team worked to connect with state and federal wildlife agencies, learning along the way how to sift through photos and how to document what was real and what was hearsay. Their founding ideology, which holds to this day, was that all information taken in had to be backed up with some kind of physical evidence: DNA, photos, video, or tracks, all of which have to be ground-verified by a local wildlife biologist before they can be included in the database. The rationale for this rule is simple: Human memories and interpretation are not as reliable as we like to think they are. Sightings simply can’t count.

Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy/Denis Callet

As it happened, it was precisely at this time that cougar populations out West were increasing and, little by little, dispersing from their western territories into the Midwest. Just as the team was putting together the framework for documenting these creatures, should they show up, the cougars were beginning to make their way back into their old haunts across the remainder of North America—and this team created the perfect protocol for proving that. The timing couldn’t have been better.

The Cougar Network has now verified an astounding 900 occurrences of cougars (and counting) since 1990 in an effort to systematically determine long-term trends over approximately a third of the continental United States. To do so, the Cougar Network has come into its name, building a network of folks from different walks of life, all of whom contribute to learning about the potential for range expansion in the Midwest: members of the public, such as hikers, photographers, and hunters; staff at state and federal wildlife agencies; and university researchers.

When a photo is sent to the Cougar Network, it is first shared with our board members, the science advisor, and me, the executive director, to get our informed opinions on whether the photo should be pursued. In a very low percentage of instances, a photo seems to show a mountain lion. We then—with the permission of the photo’s owner—work with a local biologist in the state to verify the location and to confirm that the photo hasn’t been manipulated or duplicated in some way, because this type of deception happens more than one might think. More often than not, confirmations in our database are added by talking regularly with state biologists, who receive even more photos and take in an astounding number of calls about cougars—far more than we do. Finally, once all of the verification has been conducted, we add the confirmation to our database. We might even include it in our newsletter.

It’s important to mention this process, because the vast majority of emails received by the Cougar Network contain stories, which we can’t use in our database at all, because they can’t be confirmed. And the vast majority of photos we get are simply not of mountain lions. Emails with legitimate, identifiable material that documents a mountain lion are a rarity among the many unvalidated stories, photos of bobcats or house cats, and indistinguishable blurs in the night.

And many of the photos we receive are not legitimate at all. For some reason people like to Photoshop pictures of mountain lions onto trail camera photos or claim that pictures were taken in places where they were not. For example, the most common hoax we have seen is one of a captive leopard from South Africa—his name is Leo—which has purportedly been taken everywhere from Texas all the way to Pennsylvania over the past several years. Another example we’ve gotten in recent years is a photo of a mountain lion that was taken in Oklahoma and then Photoshopped onto trail camera photos from other places. Because we’ve been doing this work long enough and we have a solid network, we tend to recognize hoax photos and make sure misinformation doesn’t persist. Indeed, what good is a database of confirmations if we can’t trust our verification system?

Courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society

There is something about cougars—their wildness and power and mystery—that makes us want to believe they’re out there. That’s why I think these hoaxes go viral over and over again. It’s thrilling to think there might be a cougar out in the woods somewhere, in a place where populations haven’t existed naturally in more than 100 years. The hoaxes keep us busy, hone our skills, and signal increased public interest. That increased interest in cougars across the Midwest is good news for us, because every so often we do actually verify photos and tracks along with our state partners, and the intrigue grows.

The Red Rocks Cat was a major confirmation for the Cougar Network: We knew for certain where the animal came from, which led us to recognize the need to look into this recolonization of a large, apex predator. I had no clue at the time that this poor traveler from South Dakota would influence my career trajectory. A year later I went from an intern at the Minnesota DNR to a graduate student in southern Illinois, looking at this very question about what exactly we might expect if cougars were successful and expanded their range eastward into the prairie and agriculture-dominated section of the country we call the Midwest.

Mapping Mountain Lions

In mid-August 2005, I moved to Carbondale, Illinois, with my golden retriever puppy. I didn’t know anyone there, and my little 53-square-meter apartment quickly became my little cubbyhole of safety and familiarity. My job was to follow up on the dozens of confirmations of mountain lions that both preceded and followed the Red Rocks Cat to figure out whether cougars are recolonizing the midwestern United States, and if so, where they are likely to go. My ultimate goal was a map identifying the various places that were both suitable and unsuitable habitat for these large cats.

I used information gathered by dozens of field biologists who had reported cougar sightings over decades to predict what mountain lions might do in the future, based on what they have done in the past. This approach was the only feasible way to broach my question about mountain lion recolonization. Putting collars on mountain lions to figure out what kind of habitat they prefer in the Midwest would have been impossible. There was no way to figure out where to even begin looking for an animal to collar. Instead, I had to get creative, making a map of suitable habitats based on the vast number of observations that have been made by other people.

North Dakota now has populations of mountain lions, and in three spots in Nebraska, the big cats are breeding.

It’s almost unbelievable to me now to reflect on this work as just a map—I learned quite quickly that science builds on itself, often at breakneck speed. Everything I’ve done to understand cougar range expansion since making this map has relied upon it. Thus, it was important to get things right the first time. And that first time took a hell of a lot of effort.

My goal was to make a single map showing where cougars are likely to end up if they continue to expand their range eastward. Toward this goal, I spent hours, voluntarily, on the weekends in the geospatial lab at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, downloading land cover and elevation data, compiling information about human presence, and calculating human densities across a nine-state region. As my computers spun and hummed in the background, I constantly hoped I wouldn’t arrive the next morning to an error message. These were common for me, experiences I have fortunately compressed in the banks of my memory by now. But that muscle memory is still there. To this day doing computer work with large data sets keeps me on my toes, and I have since learned the comforts of having constant backups of my data, which keeps my anxiety to a minimum.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I achieved my goal. On a sweltering day in the summer of 2006 I had a map of suitable cougar habitat in the Midwest. It was one of those days when you avoid movement between buildings because sweat just makes the frigid office temperatures even more miserably cold. I first used a small chunk of my data, just to test how well it predicted what we already knew about where cougars occur. Think of looking at various types of maps—some showing all the counties in my study area, with darker areas representing more people; some maps were green and yellow, representing the forests and prairies available on the landscape; and other maps were based on the topography of the landscape, showing the hills and rivers. All these separate map types were important to learning about cougar habitat in the Midwest. My final job was to effectively mash them all together into one map that showed me the places that had the best combinations of habitat in which cougars could persist.

Jerry Shaw/Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation; illustration by Barbara Aulicino

After a year’s worth of data-gathering, learning how to use a geospatial information system (GIS), and learning cougar biology, I remember thinking the final product felt so anticlimactic. It seemed too simple; I suppose that’s because I’d expected yet again to come across error messages . . . but I didn’t. In reality I’d just produced what has come to be the basis of our ability to understand mountain lions in the Midwest—but in my mind I was expecting some kind of fanfare or confetti to come out of the computer or something. Instead, I made the hot trek over to my advisor’s office to show him my results, seriously hoping I’d done it right. Above all else that day, I didn’t want to sweat and subsequently freeze on account of bad science.

Since the Oklahoma Red Rocks Cat made its appearance in 2004, there have been more than 100 cougars confirmed as carcasses east of the Rocky Mountains—across the agricultural plains of the Midwest, into the heart of Chicago, and even all the way to the Eastern Seaboard. That’s not counting the hundreds of photo confirmations of other, live cats we have in the Cougar Network archives. Indeed, in the ensuing decade we have found populations of mountain lions in North Dakota, and in three spots in Nebraska, the big cats are breeding. There’s no question anymore about whether they are moving east; they certainly are, at least right now. But this quagmire of unexplained data has turned into a serious pursuit to discover what’s going on with these creatures and why—and what we humans can expect as they continue their midwestern comeback.

Courtesy the Missouri Department of Conservation/Mark Raithel

It took only seven years for the record-breaking dispersal distance of the Red Rocks Cat to be surpassed. In June 2011 a male mountain lion was hit by an SUV in Connecticut—all the way on the East Coast. The 4,000-kilometer passage and unfortunate end of this young male was so phenomenal that journalist William Stolzenburg wrote a book about him. Certainly such a trek is book-worthy, but for mountain lions to set up shop in these new places, males cannot be the only ones making the dangerous journey. Breeding females, and males with the ability to find them, are key.

Females’ Eastward Passage

The long distances traveled by males such as the Red Rocks Cat are pretty remarkable, but from the perspective of a wildlife manager farther east it’s irrelevant to the question of whether cougars will repopulate your state. Sure, it’s impressive that males can travel long distances, but you can’t repopulate an area without females. And the trouble with female mountain lions is they just don’t tend to travel away from where they were born as often as males do, and if they do, they don’t go nearly as far. Or so we thought.

In about 2007, the major milestone of confirmation that a female had reproduced in the Midwest was met: A photo from Nebraska revealed kittens with their mother—in an area where our map had predicted only marginal habitat for cougars, or at least not enough contiguous habitat to have a sustainable population. But now, Nebraska has three separate populations of mountain lions, and the newest phenomenon we’re following is the rise of the female mountain lion.

Not only has northwestern Nebraska become repopulated with cougars in the past decade, but DNA evidence of females—potentially still alive, even—was discovered in southeastern Nebraska and in Missouri in 2016, and probably most impressively in Tennessee in late 2015. We have DNA samples from three different animals in those three locations, but the individuals are related to populations in the Black Hills and in places in Nebraska. It’s not just the young males that are having a walkabout or two, the young females seem to be following suit as well. And where the females can find habitat and bump into a male, we’re likely to have another population. In my opinion, it’s just a matter of time before places such as Missouri have a breeding cougar population again. We have to keep tracking these confirmations diligently and plotting them systematically to learn what we can expect.

Courtesy of The Cougar Network/map by Brad Herried/F+H Geographics

I never believed I’d see the day when cougars were routinely traversing the agriculture-dominated landscape of the Midwest, but here we are. The plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma always struck me as an unlikely context for a creature that requires substantial cover with trees, boulders, and other vegetation to stalk its prey. But perhaps what we’re learning is that cougars are living up to their opportunistic nature; perhaps the prairie grass will do for a short time; perhaps the cornfields can provide just enough cover to stalk deer. And maybe the river corridors are not only allowing for easier travel, but are also acting like a funnel to move mountain lions toward some of the best habitat the Midwest has to offer.

So, what else can we learn from these cats? How can we continue to watch them spread, and how can we ensure that citizens and residents are adequately informed? These are questions left to be investigated, but if history is any indication, we might have answers sooner than we think.

Based on the original map my colleagues and I created in 2006, we recently predicted the likely timeline of female mountain lions showing up in the suitable habitat the Midwest has to offer. By combining various types of data about cougar biology (such as dispersal rates, travel distances, and survival rates) with spatial information (such as available habitat on the landscape), we were able to determine a likely scenario for females’ recolonization in places such as the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. Our models suggest this recolonization will happen within 25 years. This prediction, which has yet to fully be borne out, is important to grasp. Wildlife managers need to consider how people will feel about having a large predator in their general vicinity on the continent—let alone in their backyards. In the short course of a little more than a decade we have transformed the question from “What if?” to “Well, when?”

Sharing Common Ground with Pumas

We have enough information now to start tackling a critical component of wildlife management: people and their perceptions. Despite the fact that we’re more likely to win the lottery or get kicked by a cow than we are to be attacked by a mountain lion, the fear of large carnivores never seems to escape our evolutionary minds. Convincing a single person, let alone large groups, that mountain lions are healthy for the environment can be a tough sell. Even though mountain lions can travel long distances, have two to three kittens every three years or so, move stealthily so as not to be detected, and prey on deer that carry ticks and also tick-borne illnesses, the fact of the matter remains that to sustain mountain lions in areas where they have been previously extirpated, we conservation biologists have a lot of communicating to do. (See “Suburban Stalkers: The Near-Wild Lions in Our Midst” in the September–October 2017 issue.)

Adapted by Barbara Aulicino from a National Geographic map

I created my Twitter-based photo guessing game, #CougarOrNot, in the spirit of demystifying the lore surrounding cougars that crop up in odd places. The point I hope to make with the game is severalfold: First, even when people have quite a long time to check out an image and search for hints in the picture, such as the vegetation or time of year, we still cannot reliably agree as a group on what it is we’re looking at. The accuracy increases when a cougar actually appears in the photo, but the false positive rates, especially when the animal in the photo is a bobcat, are quite high.

The second point I hope to make is that among all the photos the Cougar Network receives each year, we find very few photos of actual cougars. They are incredibly elusive on the landscape, even in places where populations are abundant. Extrapolating to a region such as the Midwest, where there are relatively few individuals, the likelihood that you would see one cross your path in the wee hours of the morning, for example, is very low. It’s not zero—that’s why the Cougar Network exists—but confirmed sightings are rare.

I never believed I’d see the day when cougars were routinely traversing the agriculture-dominated landscape of the Midwest, but here we are.

Putting these two pieces of information together brings me to my final point: We need to normalize the fact that carnivores may be present among us and are a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Although cougars are not without their share of odd mishaps, largely speaking they would prefer to avoid us humans. I hope to quash the idea that we need to be irrationally afraid of these creatures of the night, and I hope instead to cultivate a healthy respect for them and for their role in their ecosystems.

The fact that a large carnivore is likely to continue making a comeback in a region where it used to exist gives me hope that science-based decision-making and careful communication about a contentious issue can prevail. As a scientist and communicator, I see my job not as changing people’s minds, but as providing accurate information about what I know and learning where there may be common ground enough to pursue appropriate management strategies. It’s true that, like deer herds, some cougar populations can sustain hunting—and some cannot. It’s true that societal attitudes can differ depending on geography or experiences with large predators—and no group or state has a monopoly on the right way to do things.

I continue to explore how America’s large cat is expanding its range again for the first time in probably thousands of years—an idea I happen to think is exciting. I find new clues that keep me intrigued, while I also seek common ground with the people who live in areas within that expanded range. I am in constant search of the next Red Rocks Cat—the next indicator that something new is about to happen.


"Cougar or Not?"

For each of the images below, look carefully at the animal in the photograph. Click the "Answer" button to find out the answer and the "Show/Hide Explanation" button to understand why. Good luck!



Photo by Jim Tredeau

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Photo by Lee Smith

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Photo by Joe McDonald

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Photo by Cindy Reeg

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Photo by Janny Wurts

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Photo by Travis Hildebrand

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Photo courtesy Wisconsin Department Natural Resources

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Photo by Austin Burton

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Photo by Wayne Anderson

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Photo by J Lickes

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Photo by Roland Kays

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  • Thompson D. J., and J. A. Jenks. 2005. Research notes: Long-distance dispersal by a subadult male cougar from the Black Hills, South Dakota. Journal of Wildlife Management 69:818–820.
  • Wilson, S., J. D. Hoffman, and H. H. Genoways. 2010. Observations of reproduction in mountain lions from Nebraska. Western North American Naturalist 70:238–240.