Cougars could be slowly skulking their way across the U.S., leaving their western confines and heading eastward, according to a new study published in the journal Ecological Modelling.
Before you whip out the pepper spray, we’re talking about the cats, not sassy middle-aged women. And if predictions are correct, this might mean that the Midwest is repopulated within just a few decades, which could have implications for wildlife conservation and predator management.
Cougars, also called pumas and mountain lions, used to call the Midwest their home, but they were wiped out more than a hundred years ago thanks to a combination of hunting and habitat loss from development. But since 1990 more and more have been popping up further east, with more than 170 confirmed appearances in the Midwest between 1990 and 2008.
The vast majority of these visitors, however, have been males, and obviously females are needed to re-establish populations. But given that other carnivore recolonizations have occurred in the U.S., such as with wolves, it’s not unlikely that the same thing could happen with cougars, especially since these predators are known to be capable of traveling thousands of kilometers.
To explore this possibility, a duo of scientists used 40 years’ worth of data published on cougar survival and reproduction to model potential eastward recolonization for two different scenarios: cougar harvests occurring annually in the west, or no harvesting. After taking into account things like habitat suitability and female dispersal, they found that mountains lions will likely repopulate suitable areas of the Midwest within the next 25 years, regardless of the hunting situation in the west.
Even in their harvest model, seven out of eight patches deemed to be suitable for cougar occupation, including parts of North Dakota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, will probably be home to cougars within the same timeframe. But if the animals aren’t harvested as they currently are in the West, the team predicts that all eight will be inhabited in 25 years’ time.
Now that it seems the Midwest is likely to be recolonized over the next few decades, the authors suggest that federal agencies should probably start thinking about conservation and management plans, given the fact that big carnivores can have significant impacts on habitats, especially if such predators have been previously absent. Or even if they are, they might outcompete existing species. But this is not to say that their arrival is a bad thing: In fact, as lead researcher Michelle LaRue points out to National Geographic, big carnivores can be beneficial because they can control populations of animals lower down the food chain, like herbivorous prey species.