The Return of Mountain Lions to the American Midwest

Mountain Lions

Story at-a-glance -

  • For a hundred years, the cougar population in the American midwest had been in decline. But from three breeding populations in the Dakotas and Nebraska, the big cats are re-colonizing across the midwestern states.
  • Mountain lions, also called cougars and pumas, are large “ambush predators.” They are solitary creatures, shy, and rarely seen in the wild by humans.
  • Researchers are stressing the need for public awareness campaigns and conservation strategies in states that haven’t dealt with large carnivores in the last century.

By Dr. Becker

According to a new study1 published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, mountain lions are repopulating in the mid-western U.S. after 100 years of decline.

Mountain lions, also known as cougars and pumas, have increased in numbers from less than 100 in 1990 to 30,000 today.

The reasons for the decline starting around 1900 were hunters and lack of prey. They were prized by hunters and a problem for ranchers and farmers who lost livestock to the big cats.

Traveling Long Distances to Repopulate Midwestern States

There are three established breeding populations of cougars, one in North Dakota, another in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the third in Nebraska. But the cats have been found roaming far beyond this range.

A 140 pound male cougar from the Black Hills area traveled all the way to Connecticut, which is the longest distance on record ever covered by a cougar. Researchers found the cats were traveling long distances and re-establishing themselves across the midwest.

According to Dr. Clay Neilsen, principle researcher from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and director of scientific research for The Cougar Network, "What's really interesting is what this means for people living in the midwest who have lived without large carnivores for a hundred years."

Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare, but Dr. Neilsen stresses the need for public awareness campaigns and conservation strategies for midwestern states that don’t have them. “It’s only a matter of time before most of the states in the midwest should be getting ready for cougars,” said Neilsen.

The study confirmed cougar activity from Texas, Arkansas and Nebraska up into Ontario and Manitoba in Canada. Nebraska and North Dakota have the largest number of cougars.

Solitary and Shy

Mountain lions weigh between 100 and 200 pounds. Despite their large size, they are closer genetically to the domestic cat than the lion.

Cougars are slender in build. Adults range from 24 to 35 inches in height at the shoulders. Males average a bit less than 8 feet in length nose to tail; females average about 6.5 feet. Males can weigh from 115 to 220 pounds, with an average weight of about 140 pounds. Females range from 64 to 141 pounds, and average about 95 pounds.

Female mountain lions average one litter every 2 to 3 years and are pregnant for about 90 days. The adults meet only to mate; the females live with and raise their cubs alone. They are fiercely protective of their babies and are known to have fought off even grizzly bears while defending their litter.

The average litter size is 2 or 3 cubs, but 6 is not uncommon. Survival rates are a little over one per litter. The babies are born blind, and with spots that disappear as they grow older. Weaning begins around 3 months of age. By 6 months, the cubs begin to hunt small prey on their own.

Youngsters don’t leave their mothers until around the age of 2; males usually leave a bit earlier.

The life expectancy of a mountain lion in the wild is between 8 and 13 years. In captivity the typical lifespan is 20 years.

Cougars prefer white-tailed deer, but also prey on a wide variety of other animals, including elk, coyotes, porcupines and raccoons. They are ambush predators that hunt primarily at night, using a combination of stealth and power to track and bring down prey. They hide large kills and feed on them over a period of days.

These big cats need room to roam. They are solitary and wary of humans.