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Cougars In the Midwest
History With Humans
Cougars (Puma concolor), also called pumas, mountain lions, American lions, panthers, painters, ghost cats and catamounts - the top feline predators in North America - were once common in the midwest. The aboriginal inhabitants of North America regarded cougars as sacred animals, and while they were occasionally killed for magical or ritual reasons, the continent was well-stocked with cougars at the time of first European contact.
The European conquerors who supplanted the aboriginal population had no such reverence for these large cats - who in their minds symbolized wilderness, savagery and chaos - and therefore had to be exterminated. Early accounts relate numerous cougar/human interactions which, needless to say, invariably ended unfavorably for the cougar. From the arrival of the first European colonists in the early 1600's until 1973 a ruthless and relentless war of extermination was waged on this species - a war which succeeded in the eastern US. The last undeniably wild native cougar in Illinois was killed in Cook County sometime in the mid-1860's; in Missouri the last recorded cougar was shot in a Bootheel swamp in 1927. Cougar populations managed to hang on in the thinly populated and mountainous west, although even here pressure from bounty and sport hunting continued non- stop.
In 1973 Congress passed the Endangered Species Act which among many other things removed the cougar from the shoot-on-sight vermin status the species had held for nearly four centuries and turned it into a protected game animal with controlled seasons, habitat and population management and, most importantly, scientific study. Since that time cougar populations - particularly in the west - have skyrocketed forcing some of the surplus population to migrate eastward in a search for suitable habitat.
Even though the cougar has been officially "extinct" in Illinois since the 1860's sporadic sightings and even one confirmed kill in the late 1940's occurred throughout the 20th century, principally within the Illinois River valley. But beginning in the late 1980's reports of cougar sightings in Illinois began. At first these were dismissed by nearly everyone as tall tales or misidentifications of known animals but sightings became more and more frequent during the 1990's and culminated when a cougar, killed by a passing freight train, was discovered in Randolph County in 2000.
Since that time and continuing up to the present day the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has maintained that these large cats are extinct in the state and that the Randolph County animal was a onetime event. Missouri, with far more dead cats to account for, has taken a more realistic approach and now admits that free-ranging, wild cougars are once again present in the state, though they deny that breeding is taking place there. The growing consensus among cougar investigators is that cougars have returned to the midwest and are currently in the process of recolonizing their formerly vacant habitat.
Cougars in North America are outmatched in size and strength only by the Grizzly Bear. Large males can reach a weight of 200 pounds and have a nose to tail length of nine feet. Females are smaller weighing between 80 and 125 pounds and are proportionately smaller. This extremely intelligent, wary and adaptable cat, even after centuries of persecution, still has the largest range of any large cat in the world stretching from southern Canada to the southern tip of South America. It also has the widest ecological amplitude of any large cat being able to thrive in mountains, swamps, forests and deserts.
The Cougar is completely carnivorous. Unlike bears - which include significant vegetable matter in their diets - cougars subsist exclusively on meat. While they will eat rabbits, ground hogs, skunks, porcupines, and even mice, their principal prey (and favorite food) are deer. Cougars typically stalk their way to within 40 feet of their victim and then charge and leap. Landing on the back of the deer they use their powerful jaws to break the neck of their prey and sever the spinal cord. Death is very quick.
Having secured a meal the cougar immediately drags its prey away from the kill site to a more secluded spot and begins by eating the heart and lungs of its victim first. Usually the cat will then rake leaves, soil, or other debris over the body, covering it, and leave the immediate area to digest the meal. (This trait of hiding their prey beneath leaf litter and the characteristic manner in which they consume it is diagnostic for the animal.) Over the course of a week the cat will devour, in turn, the entrails, the muscle tissue, and finally the marrow of the bones. An adult cat will consume approximately fifty adult deer in a year's hunting.
Cougars do not have a fixed mating season, although late winter and early spring seem to be the most common time mating occurs in the western portion of their range. During the three week mating season the male and female will often travel together. After a three month gestation one to six kittens are born weighing only a pound at birth. For their first four months of life milk is their only nourishment. The female then begins to introduce them to solid food by tearing off strips of meat for the kittens to eat.
Cougars wean their young at about nine months of age, or about the same time that they begin to learn hunting skills. This training period for the young usually lasts a full year by which time they are close to adult size and fully capable of hunting on their own. At this time the female drives the young off and they disperse to find territories of their own. Young females usually take up residence close to their mother if territory is available. Young males travel much further one young cougar, radio-collared in Wyoming, turned up in Oklahoma nearly 700 miles away.
Cougars are the least vocal of the big cats. Occasionally a female in heat will scream to announce her availability. They also whistle, growl, snort, and purr. But on the whole they're remarkably silent. Wild cougars can expect a ten to twelve year lifespan. Cats in captivity have lived for over 18 years.
In the Rocky Mountains and the desert southwest (where most cougar studies have been conducted) cougars require about 20 square miles of habitat to sustain them. In the inhospitable swamps of southern Florida (where the only officially recognized eastern cougar population lives) up to 200 square miles is required to sustain each animal. What their potential population density might be here in the comparatively lush, well-watered midwest is anyone's guess. But since cougar population density seems to be dependent on the availability of prey animals our high deer population and abundance of cover would certainly seem to allow for many more cougars than previously thought.
Based on western studies (in marginal habitat) cougars were once thought to be solitary animals that - except for mating and family - avoided both humans and others of their own kind. Recent observations of wild cougars in California (in much more favorable habitat) however have shown this animal to have a far more complex social life than earlier studies (conducted in marginal habitat) allowed.
A total ban on cougar hunting in California (that went into effect in 1974) has resulted in explosive population growth in this species. With no natural predators to thin their numbers cougar populations there have reached levels unseen since the end of the Pleistocene 15,000 years ago. As a result cougar populations have reached the saturation point and they are currently at - or slightly above - the carrying capacity of the environment to sustain them.
Researchers observing all this have noted that where densities are high female cougars have regularly been seen in social groups with other (presumably related) females. Here they groom one another, sun together and generally hang out enjoying each others' company. Individuals that have been radio-collared by researchers have been regularly tracked up to and even within the confines of suburban neighborhoods - behavior that was unthinkable just a decade ago. And within the last ten years cougar pairs have been observed hunting cooperatively. Because in-depth research has only recently begun the old myths that used to guide research and management techniques are beginning to evaporate and cougars are now shown to be far more complex, surprising and adaptable creatures than anyone ever guessed possible.
With the beginning of scientific studies, management and monitoring in 1973 - and the imposition of hunting seasons, bag limits, and official protection - the populations of these animals have begun a slow climb. In prime habitat (like northern California) and with no hunting pressure at all, populations have skyrocketed. From the California evidence it appears that cougar populations are able to swiftly recover and repopulate formerly vacant habitat. Closer to us in states with managed and apparently stable cougar populations there is always an excess of cougars relative to the available habitat. This leads to an important and (usually) unasked question, namely, "Where do the excess numbers go?"
Before 1973 this excess population died of starvation, disease, wounds (from encounters with other cougars), road and train fatalities, and the general mischances of the world - as they always have and still do. Since all young cougars (but particularly males) migrate hundreds of miles, any remaining cougars who migrated out of their area to explore new territory were more than likely shot, often with no record of its occurrence kept, except perhaps locally. The animal killed in the Illinois River valley in the 1940's was probably one of the rare few who made it this far. However, the passage and enforcement of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 effectively stopped this intentional culling by humans and for the first time in centuries young cougars were allowed to migrate with relative freedom and, more importantly, establish new territories in areas formerly denied them.
At the same time here in the midwest changes in agricultural practices that began in the 1920's peaked in the 1970's. Mechanization, consolidation of acreage and relatively depressed prices for farm products conspired to empty our rural areas of humans. Federal and state flood control and soil conservation programs retired or bought up marginal crop land returning it to forest. By 1980 the stage was set with a depopulated countryside, regenerating forests and (thanks to very successful wildlife management) a huge and expanding deer population. By 1990 the first trickle of migrating cougars began to arrive in Illinois.
Throughout the 1990's reports of cougar sightings increased. Initially these sightings were dismissed as misidentifications of known animals (bobcats, dogs or coyotes), overactive imaginations or outright lies. But as the 90's progressed reports coming from a large cross-section of the population continued to increase, as did the cougars themselves. By 2000 cougar populations in Missouri and Illinois had reached the point where they began to appear as roadkill statistics. But why did they appear more often and in greater numbers in Illinois and (particularly) Missouri than say Iowa or Wisconsin?
A look at any map readily reveals the reason: the Missouri River. Wide, slow, prone to flooding (and therefore thinly settled), and reaching all the way to the Rockies the Missouri River valley was an ideal conduit for migrating big cats. Emptying into the Mississippi just opposite the mouth of the Illinois River valley cougars were presented with a myriad of choices upon their arrival. Following the Mississippi valley either north or south Illinois with its numerous rivers presents the animals with a wealth of opportunities for both travel and habitat.
Recent reports of cougars in eastern Nebraska, western and central Iowa, Wisconsin and eastern Kansas and Oklahoma bear this out - dispersing cougars seem to be following the river valleys. So long as they're traveling they're vulnerable both to accidents and to being sighted. But once they find a pleasant and peaceful corner of the world they can call their own they vanish from sight.
Cougars are among the wariest creatures in North America - a lesson they learned through nearly four centuries of ruthless warfare our species waged against them. Once they settle down they quickly learn every tree, rock and blade of grass in their territory with an intimacy and to a degree our species can only guess at. Couple this with their natural stealthiness, their keen sight, hearing, sense of smell, and their high intelligence, and it's easy to see why they become invisible once they settle down.
Cougars are currently in the process of recolonizing large portions of their former range. How fast this will occur and what the full consequences of this recolonization will mean to humans remains to be seen. From the evidence as it stands now it's unclear as to exactly how many cougars are already here and (based on our rudimentary knowledge of their biology and ecology) it's anyone's guess as to how many our area can support. One thing is certain, however, and that is we're in for some interesting times in the near future.
Photo © 2004 Jim Jung and liscensors. All rights reserved
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Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung
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