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Cougar Numbers Increasing in the Midwest?

Sightings of mountain lions in Midwestern states have increased slightly in recent years, and evidence points to many being transient young cats in search of mates.

Cougar Numbers Increasing in the Midwest?
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources reported a record 11 mountain lion sightings in the Upper Peninsula during 2019. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Plenty of Midwestern hunters and anglers are aware of cougar sightings that have taken place in certain parts of the region. Occasionally, a state’s wildlife department will issue a press release about a credible sighting, or a report of a big cat showing up in a spot where it shouldn’t be will make the local TV news. Even more of us have a “wife’s brother’s girlfriend’s dad saw one when hunting” story we dust off from time to time.

The truth of the matter is that young male cougars do continually crisscross core Midwestern states in futile attempts to find a mate, but no wildlife agency east of Nebraska and the Dakotas sees evidence of a homegrown breeding population. State biologists periodically confirm cougars wandering Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri; however, confirmed sightings remain rare to nonexistent in other Midwestern states from Ohio to Kansas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Eastern cougar extinct in 2011 after finding no credible evidence of its presence in Eastern states since the 1930s. Most of the Midwest’s wandering cougars—also called pumas, panthers or mountain lions—are usually Western cats, typically young males dispersing from western portions of the Dakotas, such as the Black Hills. Nebraska has breeding populations in three areas: Pine Ridge, Wildcat Hills and the Niobrara River Valley. (Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota offer tightly regulated cougar hunts for residents.)

Young male cougars often get photographed by trail cameras as they slip through an area, never to be seen again. However, one intrepid big cat headed east from western South Dakota in autumn 2009; traversed eastern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from December 2009 through May 2010; crossed into Ontario and then into northern New York; and eventually died as roadkill in June 2011 on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Connecticut (see map, page 32). Its path was confirmed through DNA samples left along its route.

In another famous case, the first male cougar documented in modern-day Wisconsin was a South Dakota juvenile that fled a farmer’s hayloft east of Madison in January 2008. After running into a nearby woods, the young cat seemingly vanished without a trace. Three months later, it remarkably surfaced inside Chicago city limits, where it was shot and killed in a back alley by Chicago police, who feared it was about to attack.

The Unblinking Eye

Until trail cameras became popular this century, wildlife agencies struggled to confirm cougar sightings without good tracks, scat or hair samples. Even with trail cams, though, most sightings get written off as mistaken identities involving bobcats, German shepherds and even large feral cats. In 2018, for example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources compiled 501 cougar reports, but considered only 37 as verified or probable. Even so, that was a record. The previous high was 20 verified sightings in 2017.

In 2019, the Wisconsin DNR verified 12 cougar sightings with trail cameras. One set of photos even showed a cougar killing a doe in mid-August in Bayfield County, which borders Lake Superior. The agency also verified a cougar-killed doe in late November farther south and a bit west, along the Barron and Washburn county line.

Biologists, however, consider cougar predation on deer and other wildlife in areas without breeding populations to be insignificant. A 2007 study in western sections of the Dakotas found deer represented about half of the cougars’ diets, but those cats apparently killed deer less often than cougars farther west. Given their relatively low numbers on the Midwest’s western fringe, cougars likely don’t impact deer numbers.


Expanding Range?

Recent upticks in cougar sightings east of Nebraska and the Dakotas don’t portend a new era in Midwestern cougar populations. Historically, cougars covered much of the United States before European settlement, but were extirpated across the Midwest by the late 1800s. Biologists don’t expect to see re-established breeding populations of cougars from Missouri to the Great Lakes anytime soon.

By definition, breeding territories must include at least one female cougar. However, unlike males, females rarely roam far when dispersing. Jane Wiedenhoeft, a Wisconsin DNR biologist who investigates cougar reports, says mature males drive juvenile males from their territories. By contrast, male cougars don’t persecute juvenile females, which seldom move far from home when mature enough to breed.

As a result, cougars slowly expand their range, no matter how far juvenile males search for mates and new breeding territory. When they roam 500-plus miles to the upper Great Lakes, for example, they’re likely so frustrated by the females’ absence that they just keep moving.

Monitoring Big Cats

  • State wildlife agencies strive to monitor wild cougars in their states. Here are some recent reports from around the Midwest.
  • The Missouri Department of Conservation confirmed a mountain lion in Shannon County in February 2020. There have been 82 verified sightings since 1994. Seven sightings were verified in 2019.
  • The Minnesota DNR verified 31 cougars, mostly on trail cams or dead as roadkill, from 2004 through 2018.
  • The Michigan DNR has confirmed 51 cougar sightings since 2008. A record 11 sightings came from the Upper Peninsula in 2019.
  • The Iowa DNR confirmed about 16 cougar sightings from 1995 to 2014. Also, five sets of cougar tracks were confirmed and 16 sightings were “highly likely.”
  • Kansas confirmed its first cougar in modern times when one was shot dead in 2007 in Barber County. Since, it’s verified 20 more sightings, including one killed in January 2019 by bird hunters.
  • Illinois verified three cougars from 2002 to 2008. Two were shot, and a train hit the third. In 2013, a conservation warden killed one inside a Whiteside County barn.
  • Kentucky has confirmed only one cougar recently. A conservation officer shot it in December 2014.
  • Indiana confirmed one cougar sighting in fall 2009 in southern Clay County, and another in spring 2010 in northern Greene County.

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