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Why Cougar (Mountain Lions) are Again Appearing in our Area

James Mahaffy

Why Cougar (Mountain Lions) are Again Appearing in our Area

By: James Mahaffy (mahaffy@dordt.edu)
June 24, 2005

This article was written for the Great Plains Zoo by Professor of Biology for Dordt College, James Mahaffy. Mahaffy also gave a presentation on this topic during our 2005 Earth Day event.


Numerous sightings of a cougar were reported this past summer and fall in Moody County. A cougar was killed a year ago in Yankton. Another was sighted this June in the same city. A cougar was shot this past November (2004) in South Sioux City. Why, after they have been gone for over a hundred years, are cougar dispersing back into or through our corner of the Great Plains? And why would they be here, in such an intensive agricultural area? Also is it not odd that almost all the cougar that have been captured or killed have been male? What can we expect in the future? These sorts of questions have intrigued me as I have tried to track the location and, when possible, the movements of these cats over the last 7 years.

Further Reading: Cougars in NW Iowa Area: A site by James Mahaffy (external link)

My interest started in 1998 when a Dordt College colleague that lives in Union County, South Dakota, surprised one while he was mowing his lawn. I decided that in a wide open area like this, cougar present in the area would be apt to be seen. If I developed good contacts with farmers and outdoors people, I might be able to keep track of the cougar and some of their movements.

At one time cougar were found all over the United States, but since the early 1900’s they appear to have been extirpated (completely gone) from most of the eastern half of the US, including the Midwest, except for a small population in southern Florida. According to DNR records, the last cougar to be killed in Iowa before their recent return, was in SW Iowa in 1867. Often the assumption is made that the demise of the cougar was solely due to its being killed by man. While hunting and bounties did affect their numbers, I would suggest (but can not prove) that the removal of the deer, their food staple, from the Midwest was a major contributor to the demise of these cats in this area. All white-tailed deer were gone from Iowa by 1898 and without deer the cougar could not remain.

A Dead CougarA number of factors have contributed to the current cougar rebound. One was an attitudinal shift in the 60’s that resulted in more appreciation for the environment and fast disappearing species. This resulted in less hunting pressure in most Western states as they changed the status of cougar from bountied varmint to one of the animals managed by the state DNR (Texas is a notable exception). At the same time deer and other wildlife have rebounded in this area.. Iowa, which had a closed season until 1953, because of low number of deer (Fisher and Clark 1997) now has a record number of white tailed deer. With an estimated 500,000 before the 2004 harvest (Suchy of Iowa DNR – phone conservation – 2005) there are plenty of deer and racoon to feed any cougar that would wander into this area. This has resulted in healthy western populations expanding their range and dispersing some of their cats to states to the east where they have long been extirpated.

The reason for the current high numbers of males in this area is because they, unlike females, must disperse from their home area or their father will kill them. In Western states with resident cougar, these dispersing males would stop dispersing and setup their home area as soon as they found a good habitat with females, perhaps in the area of an old male that they can displace. However, in this area males dispersing from Western populations are, as far as we know, dispersing into an area where there are no females. Some of the cougars may stop to setup a home range here for a while, but the urge to find a female will probably trigger a new dispersal (evidence from Florida dispersers). While some females will also disperse, they are not obligated to disperse, and usually disperse at a slower rate.

We know a lot about the behavior of resident male and female cougar in the wilderness or national parks, which was where the cougar were at the time of early studies. We know little about the dispersing males and even less about males dispersing into areas that lack resident cougar. More information will probably be available in a couple of years on some of the local cougar from an ongoing program of the South Dakota Game and Fish that is tracking some of dispersing males from the Black Hills. This study has already documented two males with very long range dispersal.

My tracking of cougar based mainly on good visual sightings and sometimes tracks, can not give us the certainty associated with collaring cougar (which Iowa does not presently do), but can still give us some ideas of where these cats have been and sometimes indicates their movement. I can make some generalities for local cougar (mainly Sioux and surrounding Iowa counties) based on these observations.

  • Cougar are most frequently reported along or close to the wooded areas of the Big Sioux and Rock Rivers. These cats don’t appear to be passing through rapidly but hunt in one area close to the river for a couple of weeks and then move up or down the river where again you will hear reports for about a week or two. These woods provide cover and also have a high density of deer
  • Several cougar have also been reported hunting in more open areas. The cougar killed west of Sioux Center (Ireton cougar) was using corn for cover to bed down in the day after feeding on raccoon that dawn or previous evening.
  • Reports suggest that another cougar has occupied an open area in the center of Sioux County between the Floyd River and highway 75 to the west for almost a year possibly setting up a home range. The cougar was first detected and left prints in the snow (2004) in an area with little cover, other than farmers’ groves and smaller stream beds. I was first surprised that a cougar that was likely a male would set up a home range in an area apparently devoid of females. However, several dispersing males in Florida that have crossed the Caloosahatchee River have set up home ranges without evidence of any females (Lotz and Land 2003). If this is a male, as it likely is, the cougar may disperse again sometime in search of a female.
  • I suspect a few of them may be moving across country not always following corridors. However without collars this would be the hardest movement for me to detect since they would not be in one area very long.

I don’t see cougar disappearing from our landscape unless most of the deer are killed off. If South Dakota enacts a hunting season in the Black Hills, it should open up some space for dispersers there and decrease some of the ones coming to our area but it will still be a source for dispersing males. Actually places producing new cats should gradually increase as females slowly disperse. There certainly are places along the Missouri River in South Dakota and places in southwest Iowa that have enough good habitat if or when females dispersers arrive. The good news from someone who hopes we can live with these animals is that so far there have been few livestock and no human/cougar interactions in our area. In part that may be due to the fact that there is plenty of wild food (deer and racoon). However, this is an intensive agricultural area and there is always a small but real potential for livestock depredation (attacks) and human/cougar interaction. These risks can be minimized by state management policies of removing potentially problem cats. In that regard, I applaud South Dakota’s aggressive policy of removing the odd cougar that develops a taste for livestock, ones that start feeding on pets or ones that end up in a metropolitan area like Yankton. Unfortunately in my own state of Iowa, the cougar has no legal protection and the legislature has prevented the DNR from listing the cougar. The DNR would like to list it as a furbearer without a season, which would prevent indiscriminate hunting of cougar while still allowing the farmer to kill a cougar that threatens his livestock.

The are numerous books and articles on these cats, but a good starting place would be Logan and Sweanor book, “Desert Puma,” which describes their ten year study of a population in New Mexico. Another book telling the tale of possible cougar acclimation in and around Colorado Springs can be found in David Baron’s well written book, “The Beast in the Garden.”

Baron, D. 2004. The beast in the garden: a modern parable of man and nature. Norton and company, New York. 277p.

Fisher, L, Pease, C and Clark, W. 1997 Managing Iowa’s wildlife: White-tailed deer. Iowa State Extension Pm 1302g 11p.

Logan, K.A. and Sweanor, L.L., 2001. Desert Puma: Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation of an Enduring Carnivore. Island Press, Washington D.C. 463.

Lotz, M. and Land, E. 2003. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Status Report. In Becker, S.A., Bjornlie, D.D, Lindzey, F.g., and Moody, D.S. eds. Proceedings of the Seventh Mountain Lion Workshop. Lander, Wyoming. P.18-24.

This article was originally published on the web page of the Great Plains Zoo

Resources

External Links:

Cougar Project Page
Official page detailing Professor Mahaffy's cougar project.

Dordt College
Official Website

James Mahaffy
Dordt College information about James Mahaffy.

Mountain Lion Foundation
A nonprofit conservation and education organization dedicated to protecting the mountain lion and their wild habitat to ensure that our wildlife heritage endures for future generations.

Mountain Lion Season?
KELOLAND TV news coverage of a possible mountain lion hunting season.

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