Making a comeback
Despite having the greatest natural distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, cougar populations in the US have drastically declined over the last 100 years, largely due to hunting and reduced prey availability.
Cougar populations in some parts of the United States plummeted to such an extent that in 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar, considered by some scientists as a subspecies of cougar, extinct.
However, according to researchers, the cougar’s population is now rebounding, and the range of this large and versatile predator is now extending outside of its traditional western habitats.
In the past, cougars have been considered a threat to livestock and humans, and in many U.S. states a bounty was paid to hunters for killing these powerful carnivores. As a result, population numbers declined, and the magnificent cougar became restricted to habitat in areas around the Black Hills of Dakota.
Around 40 years ago, cougars were reclassified as a ‘managed game species’, limiting hunting levels and causing the population numbers to grow. Since then, populations of this solitary cat have steadily increased, while its range has expanded across the United States.
Now, researchers have published the first scientific evidence showing that cougars can now be found as far south as Texas and as far north as the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba.
Writing in the Journal of Wildlife Management, researchers say that limits on hunting and the return of large prey species, such as elk and mule deer, have been key to increasing the cougar’s population in the United States, which is now said to number around 30,000 individuals.
Cougars are territorial animals and as populations have grown, these big cats have been forced to extend their range in an effort to reduce competition.
“What’s happening is that, as the young males are moving out of the areas they were born in, they are coming into contact with other young males and they don’t have anywhere else to go so they’re kind of being forced out of these western populations and into these areas of vacant habitats in the mid west,” says Michelle LaRue, one of the authors of the study from the University of Minnesota.
To confirm the cougar’s range expansion, the research team used sightings, carcasses, DNA evidence and cases of attacks on livestock across 14 states and provinces. According to the scientists, the spread of the cougar is likely to continue.
“I would assume that with the continued management practices that have allowed for the rebound, cougars have the potential to continue to move eastward into areas of available habitat,” said LaRue.
Read the full story on the BBC – Cougars make a comeback after a century of decline
Find out more about the cougar on ARKive
Helen Roddis, ARKive Text Author