A startling new study by researchers at the University of Minnesota and Southern Illinois University Carbondale predicts that mountain lions, long an icon of the West, will be recolonizing Midwestern states within the next 25 years.

Increased sightings of the big cats in states such as Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Kansas show that at least some have already moved in.

“We didn’t just look at where they are now, but where they could go,” study author Michelle LaRue, a University of Minnesota research associate in the College of Science and Engineering Department of Earth Sciences, stated in a press release. “These are predictive models, but we feel that our study could be an important tool for conservation of this species and education about a large carnivore that can sometimes incite fear.”

Four breeding populations already exist in North Dakota and Nebraska, and the cats are present in South Dakota as well. Over the next quarter century, the mountain lions are expected to push slowly east across the American heartland and reclaim a range where they have been absent for over 100 years. Cougars were historically one of the most widespread land animals in North America, but the appearance of European settlers reduced their range to only a fraction of its former size.

“The reason cougars used to exist across the country and now they don’t is because of people,” said study co-author Clayton K. Nielsen from Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory and Department of Forestry. “Now that this large carnivore is expected to come back into new areas, we need have a clear plan for education and conservation.”

In the study, which was published in the journal Ecological Modelling, researchers identified at least eight patches of habitat that are suitable for mountain lion colonization. They predict that in 25 years, seven of the eight habitat sites will have been fully reclaimed by the cats.

Not everyone is happy about their return. Cougars are large and powerful predators, which means they can be dangerous. That could make life a little more hazardous for outdoorsmen and women. Livestock owners are also worried what they could mean for business.

Groups such as the Cougar Network, an advocacy group for mountain lions, are planning to do a poll on attitudes regarding the species in coming years. LaRue, who is also the executive director of the group, says that there must be human acceptance of the species if the mountain lions are to move in peacefully.

“We now have the information necessary for government agencies to plan for ecosystem-based management and societal attitudes toward the recolonization of this predator,” LaRue said. “Given that cougars are expected to inhabit areas where they haven’t been for more than 100 years, this will pose considerable challenges for wildlife managers and the general public in the future.”

Image from Jon Nelson on the flickr Creative Commons

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  • tom

    This is not exactly breaking news. For those who are interested, they might read “Phantoms of the Prairie” by John Laundre, who has been studying this ongoing recolonization for years. Many people of course believe that they already are in the east,…and may have been here all along. Maybe, although that does not explain their failure to reproduce in the east if that were true. A male Lion from So. Dakota made it all the way to Connecticut recently and was killed by a car there. I would welcome them myself. The habitat and food supply (deer) are plentiful and they could do well. In my view it might help somewhat to solve the problem of way too many deer, a situation which is completely out of control in many places, and have caused huge damage ti our forests in those areas. In the long run, much will depend on public acceptance of their return.

  • Bert

    You might also want to read The Beast in the Garden by David Baron. It is the story of what happened when mountain lions followed their prey (deer) into the city of Boulder, Colorado. I think the lions are magnificent, and their return is exciting. However, there will be clashes. People will need to be highly educated and aware of how to comport themselves in the wild.
    I understand why the article did not list the eight habitats where lion populations are expected to take hold, but now my curiosity is piqued.