Study: cougars set to move back into Midwest

Researchers at the University predict the population will rise over 25 years.

Raj Chaduvula

After being driven out of the Midwest, cougars are mounting a comeback. 
 
Within the next 25 years, the number of cougars will increase in the region, according to a new study led in part by University of Minnesota researchers. 
 
Researchers developed models that predicted female cougars’ movements across the Midwest for the next quarter-century, said Michelle LaRue, an assistant researcher at the University who worked on the study.  The project focused on female cougars, which drive the population, she said. 
 
The models predicted that within decades, a dozen female cougars might show up in Arkansas and Missouri, and about 54 may appear in Nebraska, LaRue said.
 
One female cougar could potentially arrive in northern Minnesota, she said.
 
The study also sought to determine what areas provide the most resources, like food and shelter, for cougars to survive.
 
The study didn’t factor human interaction into its predictions, LaRue said, and as more cougars arrive in the Midwest, the public will need to increase its understanding of the animals.
 
“We should start learning more about cougars,” LaRue said. “We should encourage people to get informed.” 
 
Public agencies will also need to understand how to manage the animals, said Christopher Spatz, one of the founding members of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation.
 
When people see cougars in places where they’re not traditionally present, they get scared, Spatz said, adding that hunting and fear are the biggest obstacles to cougar repopulation.
 
“When people see them, they shoot them,” Spatz said.  
 
He said the public should understand that cougars are just as uncomfortable being in urban and suburban spaces as residents are with the animals’ presence there.
 
“The best way to manage them is to not hunt them at all,” Spatz said. “When you have a problem with an animal, that’s when you take them out.” 
 
In California, where hunting cougars is illegal, people haven’t had conflicts with the animals, Spatz said. When a cougar was spotted in San Mateo, authorities captured and released it back into the wild. 
 
Spatz said first responders should be aware and prepared for cougar alerts. 
 
In 2011, the Cougar Rewilding Foundation held a two-day course at the Minnesota Zoo for first responders about understanding cougars and preparing for cougar alerts. The group has offered the course to other agencies across the country, Spatz said.
 
LaRue said researchers hope to study next how human acceptance and management will affect cougar numbers. 
 
She said target and outreach programs are in the works to teach and encourage people to better understand the species.