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Cougars again spreading across US Midwest, a century after nearly wiped out

HOLD FOR RELEASE UNTIL WEDENESDAY, JUNE 13, 2012 11:01 P.M. CDT - FILE - This March 4, 2009 file photo, provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, shows a cougar in a tree west of Spooner, Wis. Cougars are repopulating the Midwest a century since the generally reclusive mountain lions were hunted to near extinction in much of the region, according to a new study detailed in The Journal of Wildlife Management. (AP Photo/ Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, File)

ST. LOUIS - Cougars are again spreading across the U.S. Midwest a century after they were hunted to near extinction in much of the region, a new study says.

The findings, detailed in The Journal of Wildlife Management, showed 178 cougar confirmations in the Midwest and as far south as Texas between 1990 and 2008.

Researchers said the study poses fresh questions about how humans and livestock can co-exist with the re-emerging predators, who have made startling appearances in recent years in downtown Santa Monica, California, and a Chicago alley.

Wildlife officials have for years said it's unclear how many of the animals may be in the Midwest, where they are not federally protected and, in some states, can be hunted.

"We (now) know there are a heck of a lot more cougars running around the Midwest than in 1990," said Clay Nielsen, a Southern Illinois University wildlife ecologist who co-authored the report while heading the non-profit Cougar Network's scientific research. "We've got an interesting and compelling picture to talk about now.

Researchers relied on carcasses, cougar DNA from scat and hair samples, animal tracks, photos, video and instances of attacks on livestock across 14 states and Canadian provinces to measure the number of cougars east of the Rocky Mountains.

While confirmed sightings of the large cats in the Midwest were sporadic before 1990, when there were only a couple, that number jumped to more than 30 by 2008, the study shows.

Scientists long had suspected that cougars were migrating from the West or South Dakota's Black Hills mountain range, where populations have been so abundant that the state has staged a yearly hunting season targeting mountain lions since 2005.

Researchers theorize cougars are inhabiting the Midwest again following a "stepping stone" dispersal pattern — moving out of a dense population, stopping at the closest patch of available habitat and examining it for mates and prey before moving on.

One male cougar made its way as far as Connecticut, where it was hit and killed by a vehicle.

Such cougar dispersal "is what they're programmed to do. Young mammals, even young humans, tend to move away from home," said Paul Beier, a Northern Arizona University conservation biology professor who studies cougars. "They once occupied the midwestern U.S. There's still some appropriate habitat, and this is how they'll find it."

Cougars are known to be largely secretive and mostly keep to riverbanks and wooded areas, usually avoiding humans while feeding on deer, turkeys and raccoons.

But at times, the predators have drifted into populated areas. Police in Santa Monica, California, last month killed a mountain lion that roamed into a downtown area — the first such sighting in that city in more than three decades — and Chicago police in 2008 shot and killed a cougar in an alley.

The study's findings come as little surprise to Bill Jorgenson, a North Dakotan who came face to face in January of last year with a female cougar and her three cubs in a storage barn on his property, where he has 20 horses and some 1,000 head of cattle.

Fearing for his safety, Jorgenson shot and killed the animals.

"They're so thick out here, it's unbelievable," Jorgenson, 58, said of the mountain lions he blames for "wiping out" the deer population around his home. "Two years ago, it'd be nothing to see 200 to 300 mule deer out there; this past winter, we never saw more than 20. We have carcasses all over where they've been killed."

Sixty-seven of the cougar confirmations in the study were in Nebraska, 31 in North Dakota, 12 each in Oklahoma and Texas, 11 in South Dakota and 10 in Missouri. Single-digit tallies were in Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas and Michigan.

News from © The Associated Press, 2012
The Associated Press

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