In 2009, in the Minneapolis suburb of Champlin, an estimated 6-foot-long cougar was caught crossing a highway by the dashboard camera of a police officer’s car. That cougar was sighted several times over the next few weeks in other suburbs around the Minneapolis metro area, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) confirmed that the cat caught on tape was indeed a mountain lion. Just last summer, more than 200 miles north of Minneapolis near Fergus Falls, Minnesota, a picture of a cougar was caught on a hunter’s game camera, which was later confirmed by the DNR. Over the last few years, confirmed sightings of cougars have been reported across the Midwest from Kansas City to Chicago. The Cougar Network, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying habitat relationships and the role of cougars in the ecosystems, confirmed that reports of cougar sightings have steadily increased over the last few years in areas of North America where they haven’t been seen in more than a century. Consider the sightings in the following states as an indication of the increase in the cougar’s range:
Kansas: Five confirmed cougar sightings by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks since 2007, three within the last two years.
Minnesota: Twelve confirmed sightings since 2009, with the assistance of the Minnesota DNR.
Missouri: Twenty-one confirmed sightings, eight since 2011.
Wisconsin: Eight confirmed sightings, with three occurring since 2011.
Iowa: Three wild cougars have been killed since 2001, with several recent confirmed sightings; the state DNR suspects the presence of transient animals passing through the state.
Illinois: Three confirmed sightings, with the most unusual being the 2008 shooting of a cougar in the suburbs of Chicago.
In addition to Chicago’s bizarre cougar shooting, there also was an incident in 2010 in which a cougar was killed while crossing the highway in Connecticut. DNA analysis confirmed that the cat was from South Dakota, a distance of some 1,500 miles! With the sightings so widespread, it seems that there is an amazing increase in the cougar population. However, according to most wildlife biologists who study the wild cats, that’s not the case.
The cougars seen across the Midwest are young males that have been dispersed from viable breeding populations found in the Black Hills of South Dakota and in western Nebraska. These young males are normally solitary and are searching to establish their own hunting territory. Female cougars tend to stay in closer proximity to their home range, so without the presence of viable female cougars to breed, establishing resident populations may take some time or never develop in areas where they are now being seen.
The mountain lion — also called a cougar, puma, catamount or panther — is the largest cat native to North America. Its head is relatively small, with a short and rounded face. The neck and body of the cougar is long and narrow, and its hind legs are considerably longer and more muscular than the forelegs. The color of the cougar varies considerably with two major color phases, gray or tawny (reddish). Males are larger than females, with adults ranging in length from 60 to 102 inches including the tail, which is cylindrical, long and heavy. The body fur is short and soft. A male mountain lion weighs 140 to 160 pounds, while a female weighs 90 to 110 pounds.
In comparison, the bobcat, which is commonly misidentified in reports of cougar sightings, averages only 30 inches in length and weighs about 25 pounds.
Mountain lions don’t have a definite breeding season; mating may take place at any time. Females breed every two to three years. There have been recorded births in North America during every month of the year, but the majority of the births tend to occur in late winter or spring. The gestation period is 90 to 96 days, resulting in a litter of three to four cubs, as the babies are called. The cubs average about a foot long, weigh about a pound at birth, and are yellow with black spots. The cubs eat meat by 6 weeks of age, and normally stay with the mother until they’re about 18 months old.
Female cougars will share their territory with their female offspring, although some will disperse. The males, however, are solitary and very territorial. They will kill other males or cubs they encounter. This is one of the primary reasons young males will travel such great distances to establish their own territory.
Habitat and food sources
The mountain lion is carnivorous, typically preferring deer. However, they are opportunistic feeders and will prey on anything from moose to mice. Any size of mammal is fair game for the cougar, and they will also feed on domestic pets and livestock. They return to feed on their kills several times, but they do not eat carrion or spoiled meat.
In their primary range, cougars can occupy a variety of habitats from mountainous areas to lowland swamps. Dense woods, prairie grasslands, brushlands or rocky areas are also home to the big cats. It would seem that the type of habitat they occupy is not as much of a consideration as long as it holds a good population of their favorite prey — deer.
What to do if you see a cougar
While cougars can be dangerous — and you should exercise extreme caution if you come in contact with one — fatal attacks by cougars occur much more rarely than fatal dog, bee or snake attacks. In fact, less than 20 people in all of North America have died from cougar attacks between 1890 and 2011. If you do encounter a cougar in the wild, wildlife professionals recommend the following:
Don’t run. Back away slowly while facing the animal, but avoid direct eye contact.
Make yourself look big. Hold your arms out to your sides and spread your jacket, if you have one, so the cougar doesn’t consider you prey. Don’t kneel or bend over; this could trigger an attack.
Back away. If the animal hasn’t seen you, slowly back away while making noise.
If you’re unable to get away and it attacks, fight back aggressively using anything you can find as a weapon. Whatever you do, don’t play dead.
The only viable populations of cougars that exist east of the Mississippi are located in the swamps of western Florida. These cats, generally referred to as Florida panthers, number only around 100. Males seeking new territories have been occasionally seen in the nearby states of Mississippi and Louisiana, but the possibility of their expansion to other states is very limited. Likewise, the upsurge in sightings across the Midwest in recent years is not likely to generate resident populations of the cougar anytime in the near future. Until the solitary males traveling from western breeding populations to establish new territories are joined by females, cougar sightings will remain a unique and rare occurrence across the Midwest.
Tim Nephew, a freelance writer living in northwestern Minnesota, manages his 80 acres for wildlife. He hopes that cougars may someday be included in the mix.