A brief history of cougar in Iowa and the Midwest and
where the cougar have been found

Historical accounts

Although they were likely never very abundant in Iowa (Young 1946),  cougar are returning to a changed landscape that was once their home.  At one time cougar were found all over the United States, but since the early 1900's [see Anderson (1983) for last records from for various states from 1950-1980] they appear to have been extirpated from most of the eastern half of the US, including the Midwest, except for a population in southern Florida. According to DNR records, the last cougar to be killed in Iowa, before their return, was in SW Iowa in 1867.  Cougar were not the only creatures removed from the landscape.  As part of the taming of the frontier, early settlers removed most of Iowa's native fauna and flora.  Some like bison were removed largely before settlement.  I recently looked at the early settler accounts from Harrison County and found that only one buffalo was seen in the county by early settlers. It really saddens me as a biologist and a Christian who believes in stewardship that Iowa gets cited in environmental texts as one of the two states with the least amount of native vegetation.

Perhaps more significant for the cougar was the decimation of the deer, often a staple in the their diet.  I would suggest (but can not prove) that the removal of their prey, deer,  from the Midwest contributed to demise of these cats in this area. All white tailed deer were gone from the state by 1898.  In fact it was not until 1953, after a lot of work including a program to transplant deer, that the population was large enough to open a hunting season on deer (Fisher and Clark 1997).  The deer population has continued to rebound and is now at an estimated 500,000 before the 2004 harvest (Suchy of Iowa DNR - personal communication) - 2005).  Deer are very abundant in many parts of Iowa including NW Iowa. These dramatic fluctuations in deer number may  have affected the number of cougar that often depend on deer for food.  Hunting and bounty are often given as the primary cause of the cougar demise (Baron 2004).  Clearly the bison, many of the other large mammals (bear from Iowa), and most of the deer were extirpated mainly by hunting but I suspect cougar numbers also declined due to less food (prey).  Certainly the current record high numbers of deer provides plenty of food for males that are dispersing back into this area. They are not following the deer but when they come into Iowa they have enough food so that they can stick around.   Logan and Sweanor (2001) suggest that in general, "it is logical to suggest that [cougar] densities would be affected by variations in prey biomass...": (p. 168), although they hasten to add that variables like hunting also affect cougar numbers.  Certainly historic records in parts of Colorado ( Halfpenny et al.. 1991; Baron, 2004),  Idaho (Nadeau 2003) and probably other states, tie historic increases in cougar to increases in deer or other large prey.   Both Nevada (Woolstenhule 2003) and Vancouver Island (October 23,2004 phone conversation with Kim Brunt, Research Biologist at Nanaimo, BC) see the number of prey (usually deer) as the major cause in fluctuations in cougar numbers.  But both of those locations have resident populations of cougar. Here in the Midwest cougar have been gone for almost a hundred years, so we have the reintroduction of a predator to a deer population that had been limited primarily by hunting.    We have little idea of what may be the carrying capacity of cougar in an intensive agricultural landscape and what factors, besides available prey, will affect their numbers. Grassland areas in states like Colorado or Montana generally support far lower numbers of cougar than wooded mountainous areas and that will likely be the case in NW Iowa.

A change of attitude toward wildlife has also decreased the human harvest of cougar out west. This decreased harvest is an important factor that has allowed western population numbers that had been decreasing to rebound.  Before the 60's cougar out west were generally considered varmint and most states had bounty on the cougar.  In the 60's there was a change in attitude and most states with known cougar populations provided some protection and management for their populations.  As a result today many of the western cougar populations are healthy and expanding. This has resulted in cougar no longer being restricted to the wilder areas out west but spreading to other parts of western states and also expanding east into the Midwest into territory that they had seen in many cases for over a hundred years.

NW Iowa area
There may have been an occasional disperser in this area before 1990.  There were a number of reports of a cougar- like cat with a long tail in the Doon area back in the 1960's or 1970's (July 29, 1999 phone call with Harold Aarkema, the editor of the Doon Press) and Bill Berg of the Minnesota DNR (Berg 1984) gave credence to some reports in Minnesota.  However, the Iowa DNR folks, like most of the surrounding states, could generally assume that the sightings were of something else or of escaped pets [happens more often when an owner realizes his cute kitten is growing into something too big to handle and releases it into the outdoors].   The first confirmed cougar were sighted both in Iowa and Nebraska in the 1990's.  In 1991 a cougar which had been sighted in northern Lyon County, was then sighted south of Worthington, MN on December 10, 1991.  On December 22 it was spotted in a garage in the town by a cop and subsequently chased until they treed it.  The Minnesota DNR transported and released it in Colorado.  This was a large "trophy size" male that was not declawed and showed diet preferences and behavior more consistent with a wild cat than a released pet.  The number of reports in our area kept increasing through the 1990's.  I became interested in following these reports after a colleague in 1998 had a daylight sighting of  one in his yard.  Click here for a list of reports from this area.

Rest of Iowa
Ron Andrews of the Iowa DNR keeps track of confirmed  reports for the state or Iowa.  Most of the mountain lion reports are in the western half of the state, especially from the southern counties. In addition to visual sightings, a number have been confirmed by prints or fecal examination.  The DNR map, listing counties where mountain lion have been sighted, first published in an article by Mike Kilen on mountain lion in the Des Moines Register of March 26, 2002, is now available in the 2000-2002 status report (pdf)   A 2000-2004 updated status report is available on the web as a pdf.  The map of confirmed reports in the updated status report now only selects sightings that the DNR are sure were cougar.  The map includes in the sightings category the three killed cougar mentioned in the next paragraph.

The DNR estimates that, as of the summer of 2002, up to about 10 cats (personal communication with Ron Andrews of DNR) have moved into the state.  A few  have moved to the middle of the state but the highest concentration is in the SW portion of the state. There were some reliable sightings in 2002 of a mountain lion in the very NE part of the State (Alamakee County) (June 13 phone conversation with Ron Andrews). It was three presumably wild cougars that were killed in the state (road kill in Harlan, and the cats shot in Sioux and Wayne Counties) that really convinced people that cougar were dispersing into the state.

Source of these cougar
Cougar populations out west are healthy and expanding.  Two sources for our dispersing males in NW Iowa are Colorado and, more likely, the Black Hills populations.  The Black Hills population is expanding and is dispersing males and some females. To the east breeding populations have apparently already established themselves (presumably from females dispersing from the Black Hills population) in the Pine Ridge Reservation (Kintigh 2003), the badlands and perhaps just east of the Missouri (Gap project1).  Movement of dispersing cats has usually not been as well studied as resident populations, but studies that have collared and tracked these cats (Logan and Sweanor 2001; Anderson et al. 1992) have shown some very long distance dispersal.  We should soon know more about the dispersal of the South Dakota population since they have initiated a program of tracking the movement of dispersing cats from their population (Kintigh 2003).

Some of the cats in the SW part of the state, which has had the most reports of cougar, could also be originating from the Ozarks of Missouri2 or moving east from known populations in Colorado. Texas is also a possible source but perhaps a bit far to produce many cougar.   I suspect the cougar in the very NE part of the State (Alamakee County) was more apt to have moved down the Mississippi valley from Minnesota than from across the state.

There are known breeding populations in Saskatchewan and probably Manitoba (Anderson 1983, Nero and Wrigley. 1977;  2002 phone conversations with provincial officers) but, with little evidence of dispersing down the Red River corridor of Western Minnesota, these populations are not a likely source for our cats, though some may disperse into northern Minnesota.

Cougar in neighboring states
Cougar are also dispersing in neighboring states and suggest a broad dispersal pattern into Midwest states.  The Cougar network, formerly Eastern Cougar network, lists confirmed reports from Iowa and surrounding states. They have high standards for listing cougar so the ones they list on their maps should be reliable.  However, the numbers between states are nor always comparable. For instance, the confirmations for Nebraska look high compared to South Dakota but South Dakota probably has more confirmations.  Nebraska is very open with the public on confirmations and South Dakota is legitimately  hesitant to share location of all their cougars when they have researchers actively studying the populations.  Some other Midwestern states tend to still assume almost all reports are of escaped pets or something other than a cougar.  Consequently these states do less investigating of cougar reports and would underreport compared to states like Iowa, or Nebraska that actively collect and record good evidence of cougar.

Nebraska has a nice web page that shares the pattern of  cougar  moving into and eastward in Nebraska. Many of these may be coming from the Black Hills population but some may be coming from Colorado. They have been found as far east as Omaha, where a 108 pound male lion was captured within the city limits on Sept. 1, 2003. See the story on Channel 6 in Omaha.  Another was killed on the interstate in the Omaha area on November 6, 2005.  Porcupine quills  found in its skin suggest a Western origin for this cat.  In December (2004) another cougar found its way to the eastern side of the state and ended up in a tree in a residential area of South Sioux City.

South Dakota has an expanding population in the Black Hills, which appears to be the origin of new  breeding populations as far east as the badlands and maybe east of the Missouri.  Males are know to sometimes disperse long distances and this population may have produced some of the cats found in eastern Nebraska, South Dakota and NW Iowa.  We know of two male cougars with very long distance dispersals from the Black Hills.  One dispersed from Wyoming Black Hills in 2003 and in less than a year wandered 667 miles, ending up in Oklahoma, just south of the Kansas border. Another long distance disperser left the Black Hills last winter, traveled north and east into North Dakota, and has now made his way into Minnesota (January 2005) . Both of these cats were dispersing into areas that likely have no females, which may partly account for the long dispersal. These distances are much greater than generally expected of male dispersers who tend to disperse at the age of about a year and a half. When a disperser gains enough experience and finds another population that has an older male which he can displace (usually kill) he may take over his area, giving him access to the resident females.  See a little more discussion of the patterns of movement on my page on behavior.

Historically Minnesota  never had many cougar and Young (1946) thought they were extirpated when he wrote his book on puma.  However, Anderson (1983) found references in the literature to a number of sightings in the 1940's and 1950's especially from the north and northeastern counties. Bill Berg, when he was the fur bearing biologist (recently retired), continued to see evidence of cougars at least passing though Minnesota and noticed that reports were more frequent from some parts of the state (Berg 1984).  He never saw evidence of a  breeding population with tight territories.   However,  unlike most of the cats in Nebraska and Iowa, some of the cougars in Minnesota were females which suggests some breeding.  Bill told me of a female and cub that were observed traveling across a lot of northern Minnesota. The cat that was killed near the Minnesota River in Bloomington,  a suburb of Minneapolis, was female.  This was in the same general area where a cat  was photographed in April 2002 with a motion detector camera in Savage, MN (see this article by Greg Breining from Minnesota Conservation Volunteer).  Cougar sightings (sightings are not considered confirmations) have continued in the area from both Eden Prairie in March 2005 (Jerde 2005) and a bit to the west in Shorewood (Hanks 2005; South Lake Police department alert 2005).

Some other states   Cougar have also been found in other states adjacent to Iowa.  One was killed in the Kansas City area in NW Missouri in October of 2002 and another near Fulton in the center of the sate in August 2003. Another one was killed by a train in southern Illinois in August of 2000.  It has been reported that there might be a resident population in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but there is some question about the validity of the evidence. There are a number of other good sightings in the east but I  have concentrated on cougar evidence in states around us that could be a source for some of our cougar.  See the Cougar Network web pages for other states in the Midwest and eastern parts of the United States.

1 This GAP map should only be taken to show that the Black Hill's population has spread east.  It should not be taken to represent current distribution [since this figure has not been updated since November 1999] of current breeding cats or all confirmed cougar in South Dakota.  Dispersing cats have been found in many other places of the state and are not charted on the map. I assume the confirmed areas plotted on the figure are intended to indicate a breeding population (the confirmed plotted on this figure in the west correspond to known breeding cougar in the Black Hills and the Badlands). However, I have not been able to find other references to a breeding population in Charles Mix County.

2 Dave Hamilton, the Missouri wildlife biologists responsible for monitoring reports of cougar, feels [e-mail to author] that there would be a lot more evidence if there were a breeding population and thinks that the confirmed cougar that have been found in the state can probably be accounted for by either dispersing males or escaped pets (there are a LOT of private cougar owners in Missouri).


Anderson, A.E. 1983. A critical review of literature of Puma (Felis Anderson, A.E. 1983. A critical review of literature of Puma (Felis concolor). Special report Number 54. Colorado Division of Wildlife

Anderson, A.E., Bowden, D.C., Kattner, D.M., 1992. The Puma on Uncompahgre Plateau, Colorado (Technical Bulletin 40). Colorado. Division of Wildlife, Fort Collins (p. 116).

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

Berg, W.E. 1984. Mountain Lions in Minnesota. Minnesota Volunteer.47(274):4-7.

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

Hanks, M.. 2005 Is there a cougar prowling through Shorewood? Excelsior-Shorewood
Sun-Sailor of Febuary 3, 2005. Article was found on the Sun Newspaper web page and accessed on Feb. 4, 2005 from url: http://www.mnsun.com/story.asp?city=Shorewood&story=151755
[no longer on web page - paper changed web hosts].

Jerde, L. 2005. Cougar sighted in western EPCougar sighted in western EP. Eden Prairie Sun Current of March 31, 2005. Article was found on the Sun newspaper web page and accessed on April 2, 2005 from url: http://www.mnsun.com/story.asp?city=Long_Lake&story=155007[no longer on web page - paper changed web hosts].

Kilen, M. 2002. Uproar over mountain lions. Des Moines Register (March 26).

Kintigh, M. 2003. State of South Dakota Mountain Lion Status report pages 43-48 in Becker, S.A., Bjornlie, D.D, Lindzey, F.G., and Moody, D.S. eds. 2003 Proceedings of the Seventh Mountain Lion Workshop. Lander, Wyoming. 186.pp

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

Nero, R.W. and Wrigley, R.E. 1977. Status and habits of the cougar in Manitoba. Canadian Field-Naturalist 9(1):28-40.

Smith, V.J.,  Kopplin, C.J.,  Fecske, D.M. and Jenks, J.A. . [updated on Januray 16, 2001] South Dakota Gap Analysis Project Land Cover Classification and Analysis.  Available on line at  url: http://wfs.sdstate.edu/sdgap/sdgap.htm. Accessed on January 11, 2005

South Lake Police department alert. 2005.Cougar Sighting in Silverwood Park Area - Update, South Lake Minetoka Police Department webpage at url: http://www.southlakepd.com/alerts.asp Accessed on Febuary 4, 2005. Now August 13, 2005 found in their archives at url: http://www.southlakepd.com/alerts.asp?DocID=569

Young, S.P. and Goldman, E.A. 1946. The puma, mysterious American cat. [is subdivided into two parts] Part 1: History, Life Habits, Economic Status, and Control by Stanley P. Young and Part II: Classification of the races of the Puma by Edward A. Goldman


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Page created by James Mahaffy in December of 2004
File updated on:  November 8, 2005 (8:40 AM)