Mountain Lions Recolonizing in Midwest, Researchers Say

A few years have passed since a mountain lion was spotted in the Chicago area, but researchers say the number of sightings in the Midwest is on the rise.

Mountain lions — also known as pumas, panthers, catamounts and cougars — were nearly wiped out in the U.S. in the early 1900s as hunting and a shortage of prey drastically reduced their numbers. But a century later, they are starting to recolonize in the Midwest, according to researchers.

The Chicago area has seen a few mountain lion sightings over the years as well, although none have been reported in 2015. In 2011, Lake Forest residents reported a possible mountain lion sighting after seeing a large cat prowling the area. In 2009, there were two mountain lion sightings in Wheaton in the same month.

Since 2002, four mountain lions have been killed in Illinois, including one who was shot in an alley in the Roscoe Village neighborhood in 2008. In all four cases, the mountain lions migrated from South Dakota or Nebraska, and all of them were teenage males.

One part of the Midwest seeing a recent spike in mountain lion sightings is the Missouri and Kansas region. Almost all of the mountain lions confirmed in those states since 1994 were males coming from established populations in the Black Hills, Badlands and northwestern Nebraska, The Kansas City Star reported.

Female mountain lions are typically reluctant to wander far from their mothers, said Clay Nielsen, director of scientific research for the Cougar Network, a nonprofit research group. Males aren't so inhibited.

In May, Missouri state troopers euthanized a male mountain lion in Laclede County after it was struck on Interstate 44. Since 1994, there have been more than 50 confirmed sightings of the animals, the Department of Conservation said. In Kansas there have been 10 cougar sightings during that period.

Matt Peek, research biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, said the difference between numbers in the two states can be explained by the roaming mountain lions' route.

"We know that a lot of lions have dispersed from the Black Hills," he said. "They're more likely to come across Nebraska from west to east following the river, which leads them to Missouri."

Kansas has significant prey, but the landscape is less than prime, Peck said.

The Midwest rebound is a result of modern management and conservation, experts say.

While conservationists see the mountain lion's return as a success, it's also a source of concern because they are predators.

Many states, including Nebraska, allow hunting of the animals, but Illinois is not one of them, after former Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill in 2014 protecting them.

Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare, but experts suggest standing tall and yelling loudly in the event of an encounter with the animal instead of running away because mountain lions will likely follow.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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