February 16, 2005

Scientists tracking eastward movement of cougars

by Paula M. Davenport


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CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Like most young outdoorsmen, he seems to be seeking the simple things in life: A quiet, out-of-the-way place to call home, great deer hunting grounds and a soul mate with whom to start a family.

No wonder he's looking in the agricultural Midwest, what with its remaining forests and abundant venison.

However, he's not your average kind of guy - he's a cougar.

"There have been 21 confirmed cougars in nine Midwestern states and one Canadian province in the past 18 months. In the 10 years before that, we had one or two a year," says Clayton K. Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and director of scientific research for the Cougar Network, a non-profit research group that tracks "hard evidence" of cougar movements and networks with federal, state and other wildlife agencies.

"The phenomenon of cougars showing up in the Midwest is a relatively new one. It's the acceleration that's got people really interested right now," says Nielsen, a scientist with the SIUC Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory.

Nielsen and the Network are tracking scientifically confirmed cougar appearances on a "big picture map" that's yielding a comprehensive view of the cats' movements outside their contemporary ranges.

Mere sightings don't count. Carcasses, cougar DNA and verifiable photos are better measures.

These data, says Nielsen, are the most credible to date on cougars' eastward migration. With the information, scientists may begin to make educated predictions on how cougars may fare if and when they get here.


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"From a research perspective, we want to know where the movement corridors are, how the cougars are getting here and if they do, we'd like to know if there's enough habitat for them to survive and to eventually re-colonize," Nielsen says.

One thing's for sure: These cats will brave the water. Those showing up in the Midwest first must successfully swim the Mississippi River.

As a species, cougars, also known as mountain lions, panthers or pumas, were extirpated from the eastern half of the United States - with the exception of Florida - about 150 years ago.

Today, our continent's biggest cats usually occupy secluded tracts of land out West.

But rising cougar populations and habitat loss there appear to be major factors in the felines' recent forays east, says Nielsen.

In December, a cougar - who'd been shot by an archer - was found by another hunter after the cat collapsed and died in the family owned woodlands in Mercer County, Ill., across the Mississippi River from rural Iowa.

A second cougar turned up dead on a railroad tracks near the Mississippi River town of Chester, Ill., in June, 2000.

"That one was a relatively young male, four-six years old, who'd recently eaten a fawn and appeared to be a wild animal," says Nielsen, who was present at the cat's necropsy, conducted at the University's Wildlife Lab.

In some cases, these cougars may be released pets, he adds.

Still, there's no reason to lock and load.

"The likelihood of a human getting attacked by a cougar here in Illinois is lower than death by vending machine," Nielsen says. There are much more dangerous risks out there to worry about."

"But there are no breeding populations of cougars in the Midwest. So the cougars coming here aren't going to find one of the things they're most interested in and that's mates," he explains.

In their travels, they continue seeking suitable partners until they're either killed by hunters, hit by cars or trains or perhaps decide to turn around and head back home.

So it remains uncertain whether cougars can re-establish themselves outside the West.

"There's no fear we're going to be overrun anytime soon. But I do think this is a naturally occurring phenomenon. And whether you're in favor of it or not, it appears to be happening. As scientists, we'd like to help people plan for their possible arrival and to figure out whether or not we can co-exist."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Caption 1 - Cats' comeback - Wild cougars, who resemble this captive cat cared for by Free Again, a specially licensed wildlife rehabilitation and education organization, are dispersing east of the Rocky Mountains looking for potential new habitat.

Clayton K. Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, says there have been 21 confirmed cougar appearances in the Midwest and Canada in the last year-and-a-half.

Nielsen also directs scientific research for the Cougar Network, a non-profit group collecting credible information on cougar movements for use by state and federal wildlife agencies, among others.

Caption 2 - Keeping track of cougars - Clayton K. Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is helping plot verifiable cougar movements in the eastern United States to create a credible "big picture map."

Also scientific director for the non-profit Cougar Network, Nielsen says the number of cougars moving into the Midwest is on the rise. There have been 21 confirmed cougar appearances in the Midwest and Canada in the last year-and-a-half.

The data is intended to be the most credible information on the trend to date and is shared with federal wildlife agencies and others.

Nielsen is a veteran at tracking wild cats. He cut his teeth studying the bobcat's comeback in Illinois.

Photos by Jeff Garner