Where Will Cougars Show Up Next?

Mountain lions are spreading east of the Rockies—a challenge for wildlife managers and communities.

Some friends who live a few blocks from me in the small town of Whitefish, Montana, had a house cat named Dandelion. After it went missing for two days, the family began a search through their wooded lot. In a nearby shed, they discovered the remains of “Dandy” and two other neighborhood cats. Then they found tracks of the larger cat, a cougar, that had been eating the cats and resting under the building between meals.

There are now more tawny, five-foot-long felines with a three-foot-long tail roaming close to people in the U.S. West than ever before. This is largely because the countryside has filled with so many humans but also because the cougars’ numbers have risen as well. Secretive and stealthy, sticking close to dense cover, they are twilight stalkers, most active at dawn, dusk, and during the night. Ghost cats. Most folks seldom realize they’re even around.

As a wildlife biologist, I’ve habitually kept an eye out for telltale paw prints, scrape marks, droppings, or other sign. I’ve found plenty. But like other rural Montanans, I almost never glimpsed the cats themselves, apart from a few momentarily caught in the headlights of my car. That began to change late last fall when National Geographic assigned me to write a story about these animals.

North Americans often refer to cougars as mountain lions. While the name fits some, it doesn’t begin to describe the pair I once met 30 feet away in the flat, tropical marshlands of Brazil’s Pantanal.

For the Geographic story, I was asked to focus on the U.S. portion of the cougar’s range, which extends all the way from southern Argentina to the Yukon. Among my previous assignments were stories on jaguars, snow leopards, and a national park in India— Kaziranga—that may harbor the densest tiger population left in the world.

With this big cat story, I looked forward to reporting on animals living mostly within a couple days’ drive of Whitefish. That was before I understood how much of 21st-century America cougar tracks now pass through.

Cougars in Suburbia?

When European colonists arrived in North America, cougars roamed from coast to coast in what would become the Lower 48 states. Loss of habitat to settlement, combined with relentless persecution, soon eliminated them from the eastern two-thirds of the nation (except for the small, endangered subgroup known as Florida panthers).

Cougars found refuge in rugged stretches of the vast public lands in the U.S. West. After state bounties on cougars finally ended, predator poisons were restricted, and cougar prey such as deer and elk proliferated, the cats began to branch out. Cougars heading east from the Rockies colonized parts of the Dakotas and, more recently, western Nebraska.

When a solitary cougar shows up in a busy Chicago suburb, as happened in 2008, or somehow reaches southern Connecticut within prowling distance of New York City, as another did in 2011, it sparks nationwide headlines.

But such news isn’t quite the surprise it would have been just a while ago, for more and more cougars have lately been probing former range from Indiana to Arkansas. Almost all the explorers are young males driven out by older ones with prior claims on the territories back home. This is the main reason no resident populations are known to have been established east of Nebraska…yet.

I said almost all the wayfarers are males. Some females have also been tracked roaming hundreds of miles from their birthplace. Where could a boy and girl cougar meet to start the newest population in the Midwest or East? Almost anywhere, sooner or later.

The real question is: Are people who haven’t lived near cougars for generations going to allow some to stay in their midst?

I’m still racing among scientists, wildlife managers, sportsmen, and homeowners in a search for answers. Meanwhile, I’m learning about new—and unexpected—dimensions of cougar ecology and social behavior, the effects of hunting seasons that target cougars, and the cats’ relations with other large carnivores, namely wolves and bears.

I view cougars as the one, and perhaps only, big predator able to live next to us without setting off fireworks of public reaction. Couple this with the fact that cougars could live almost anywhere in the nation and appear to be testing that possibility, and the result is a unique wildlife story.

I never imagined having so many opportunities to see adult cougars up close, much less to hold cougar kittens staring back at me with the boundlessly blue eyes the young have before their irises start to turn golden brown. I know this isn’t supposed to be about me, but I sort of measure an assignment by how often I hear myself saying, “I can’t believe I get to do this for a living.” I’ve been saying that a lot.

Okay, so postholing through snow for hours on the trail of hounds trying to tree one of the cats, or getting stuck on cliffs while looking for the carcass a radioed cougar was feeding on, and so forth, I sometimes mutter other stuff. Right now, though, I’m packing for the next leg of the journey, more than eager to see where the tracks lead.

Douglas H. Chadwick is a wildlife biologist and journalist. He has written a dozen books on natural history and conservation and hundreds of magazine articles, nearly 50 of them for National Geographic. He and his wife, Karen Reeves, raised two children at a remote cabin in prime cougar range just outside Glacier National Park. Look for his story about cougars in an upcoming issue of National Geographic.

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Douglas H. Chadwick is a wildlife biologist and journalist. He has written a dozen books on natural history and conservation and hundreds of magazine articles, nearly 50 of them for National Geographic. He and his wife, Karen Reeves, raised two children at a remote cabin in prime cougar range just outside Glacier National Park. Look for his story about cougars in an upcoming issue of National Geographic. Photograph courtesy of Douglas H. Chadwick