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What Are You Doing Here?

Cougars are moving into the midwest—and they may be here to stay.

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For a century and a half there weren't any wild cougars in Illinois, but the cougar shot to death by police in Roscoe Village last month was the third one discovered here in the last decade. The first, a four-to-six-year-old male, was hit by a train in Randolph County in 2000. The second was found by a bow hunter in the fall of 2004 not far from the Quad Cities. Within hours of the Roscoe Village incident, police were investigating another possible sighting near the Skokie Lagoons. Another call came in from Glencoe the next day, and a week later police responded to a report of a sighting in Stickney.

Cougars—also known as mountain lions, catamounts, panthers, and pumas—generally avoid contact with people, so the Roscoe Village cougar probably wasn't attracted to Chicago for the abundance of prey. Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologist Ron Andrews says only 19 human deaths have been attributed to cougar attacks in the U.S. in the past 150 years. By contrast, he says, "more than 300 people were killed by domestic dogs between 1979 and the late 1990s." But the midwest is the eastern frontier for young male cougars getting crowded out of western states by human settlement. They can travel up to 100 miles in a day, and the Roscoe Village cougar likely followed a rail, water, or wooded corridor into the city.

Roscoe Village residents called police when they spotted the 150-pound cat leaping tall backyard fences. Officers chased it on foot and cornered it in the alley behind the 3400 block of North Hoyne. Their decision to shoot has been a controversial one, though it was quickly defended by the police superintendent and the mayor, who said the police had no choice but to fire once the cougar was in their sights.

When you separate the kernels of verified cougar sightings from the chaff of unreliable ones, the numbers are not huge, but they do indicate an increase in cougars making their way back into the nation's corn and soybean belt, areas from which they were exterminated long ago. Now the midwest is going to have to decide what to do about them.

At one time cougars roamed coast-to-coast in the United States. Human settlement and development restricted their range, though they can still be found from the Andes to Canada. Their diet includes deer, elk, moose, rabbits, rodents, grass, and the occasional pet: Robert Busch writes in The Cougar Almanac that "one cougar killed in Fresno, California, had the remains of five domestic cats in its stomach."

Today they prefer rugged, sparsely populated environments, terrain more common in the western United States and Canada, but they don't always successfully avoid humans. One young male wandered into downtown Omaha in 2003, turning Nebraska Humane Society workers, police officers, and zoo officials into big-game hunters. That cat was tranquilized and currently resides at the Henry Doorly Zoo.

Mike Kintigh of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department confirms that his state has reached its "carrying capacity"—the maximum number for which it can ensure food and terrain—of 165 cougars. In the fall of 2005 the state initiated mountain-lion hunting season to take care of the surplus.

In recent years South Dakota has radio-collared its Black Hills cougars to see just where their wanderlust takes them. One went missing for a year and a half, until one day Kintigh received a long-distance call that it had been found in Red Rock, Oklahoma, 667 miles away, killed by a train.

DNA testing can also be used to try to determine the origins of a stray cougar. The North American cougar is genetically distinct from its counterpart in South America, where most of this country's captive cougars come from. A cougar identified as the South American genotype is usually believed to have escaped or been released, but wildlife officials also look for signs of captivity such as tattoos, ear tags, or footpads worn from pacing on concrete. A lack of that sort of evidence led wildlife officials to believe that the Roscoe Village cougar was indeed a wild animal, probably from the Black Hills region of western South Dakota. North American cougars can grow up to eight feet long end to end and weigh up to 175 pounds. Like a house cat, a cougar can sleep away two-thirds of a day, but unlike Tabby, cougars can traverse a river the size of the Mississippi.

Despite human encroachment on their habitat, cougars appear to be thriving, perhaps because they're often protected or can be hunted only during controlled seasons. The nonprofit research group Cougar Network (cougarnet.org) uses criteria including carcasses, DNA evidence, and verifiable photos and video to authenticate sightings. They've concluded that "the presence of a number of confirmations in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois in recent years suggests that transients are starting to reach those states from the adjacent prairie states which themselves are in the process of being repopulated."

Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and director of scientific research with the Cougar Network, says the emergence of cougars in the midwest is "a naturally occurring phenomenon and there's nothing we can do to stop it. These animals are plastic in their behavior, [their] ability to change behavior based on a new set of constraints."

Howard Quigley, executive director and senior ecologist of Craighead Beringia South, a nonprofit environmental research organization in Wyoming (named for the land bridge that once linked Alaska with northeastern Siberia), has studied big cats around the world for decades. "Cougars are doing quite well, thank you," he says. "The big story is that they have evolved into one of the most adaptable land mammals in the world and they're on the rebound." Quigley says that's a good thing. "I hope the people of the midwest will rejoice in the return of this native big cat at the same time they are learning more about living with them. It does bring new responsibilities to live in cougar range, but those new responsibilities are far outweighed by the knowledge that one small but important piece of native, natural heritage is back."

Mark Dowling, cofounder and director of the Cougar Network, says he was hardly surprised to hear about Chicago's cougar. "Given the dispersal distances that we have documented in recent years, a cougar showing up as far east as Chicago is not all that surprising.... We do expect more transient cougars to show up in the future, but there is considerable uncertainty over whether the species will ever reestablish as a breeding population east of the Mississippi."

Nielsen agrees that it's difficult to forecast the cougar's future. "Other midwest states have similarly confirmed the occasional dispersing cougar during the past ten years, but the erratic nature of these movements make it difficult to predict if or when a cougar will come close to Chicago again."

A restless cougar would be wiser to head for Missouri. Unlike Illinois, which offers no legislative protection for cougars, the Missouri Department of Conservation prohibits hunting them. Dave Hamilton, who directs the department's's Mountain Lion Response Team, says Missouri has enough habitat and more than adequate prey (there are roughly a million deer in the state) to support a small breeding population of cougars—"around 50 individuals"—but he's pessimistic about the public's acceptance of a large predator in the state. "We don't have the habitat where lions could avoid human contact," he says. "Lions could tolerate people more than people could tolerate lions."

In Carbondale, Nielsen has landed the first major grant to map what habitat might be suitable for cougars in the midwest. For years he's studied the growing bobcat population in southern Illinois—bobcats are smaller and have shorter, "bobbed" tails—and concludes that the two cats have historically shared habitats. "From a habitat perspective there may be a useful surrogate in bobcat populations. We've been protecting them for almost 35 years in Illinois and the numbers have just exploded. It's the same thing for all carnivores: if you don"t kill them and they have habitat, they're going to come back."

The survival of a breeding population of cougars in Illinois, or anywhere in the midwest, depends on an environmental ethic that allows for species recovery alongside development and a commitment to protect both the cougars and the public. Nielsen believes southern Illinois' biologically rich, prey-clogged 300,000-acre Shawnee National Forest could support a new population of cougars. "The conditions we have here are the most conducive in the state and, with the continuation of the Ozarks into Missouri, it just seems that there would be no problem with that being good habitat for cougars." In fact he's banking on it: "Things like this don't come along very frequently in a scientist's lifetime. I'm at the start of my career and this is something I intend to partially build my career on."

But even if it can support them, does the midwest want them? "Cougars cannot and should not be tolerated in some circumstances, and the people of the midwest will have to determine where those places are over time," says Quigley. "But one of the pieces of the natural community is trying to find its home again; it's up to people to decide where that home is." Quigley tips his hand when he invokes the name of a proto-conservationist: "Aldo Leopold—himself a midwesterner—said the measure of our wisdom will be whether we saved all the pieces for the time that we can fit them back. Well, we saved this one, and it's trying to fit itself back into the ecological puzzle of the midwest."v

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