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.

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
  • Ima Ryma

    We, cougars, have found ways to stay
    In and amongst where humans be,
    Cuz humans have a nasty way
    Of acting up so bizarrely.
    They hunt us not for food to eat,
    But of a mix of fear and fun,
    Armed with an arrogant conceit,
    With a camera or a gun.
    We stalk by dark of night new ground,
    But always know we’re not alone.
    The human scent is all around,
    In this human made twilight zone.

    We “ghost cats” more and more do jaunt
    Into the world where humans haunt.

  • Christopher Spatz

    The lede doesn’t mention that the reason a cougar is taking house cats in the writer’s neighborhood may well be due to the sport hunting policy of Montana. Washington State’s Large Carnivore Conservation Lab found during a 15-year study that sport hunting takes above cougar breeding rates increases conflicts between pets, livestock and people, sending young, often orphaned cats into residential areas in search of easier meals.

  • Eric Johnson

    I was hunted by cougars when I was young, but now in my later years they don’t seem interested.

  • Nate Whilk

    “When a solitary cougar shows up in a busy Chicago suburb, as happened in 2008”

    The 2008 encounter was in Chicago in the area known as Roscoe Village. It’s about 1.5 miles west of Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs.

  • maximillion Johnson

    I am working on a project in school, and this was a helpful website to my paper. I appreciated the work you made for me.

  • James Gordon

    They are confirmed black bear in Illinois now and even though the Illinois wildlife and conservation dept won’t admit it, there is a small but growing population of cougars that have spread down from WI..back in the mid 80’s, a training area at FT McCoy was not allowed to be used because of a female cougar with cubs

  • Marjorie Hartley

    Remember the equally elusive Florida Panther, another member of the cougar family. Sightings are rare, but happen often enough to confirm that the cat is struggling to come back in Florida. What a wondrous place the everglades is for these cats.

  • Nature Lover

    I really like the idea of chase season….at the end it is much more humane to shoot with the camera and celebrate the beauty of life and living creatures around us …the photograph of a live animal captured in all its beauty and grace is much more appreciated by any nature lover than that of hunters posing with a dead trophy.

  • Cindy Richards

    Spring 2012. A cougar was about to attack my 2 Labradoodle puppies, until I spotted him crouched by my fence. We eyeballed each other, as I tried to figure out WHAT that creature was. A dog? Too big for a cat. Finally my brain accepted that it was a mountain lion, tawny color, Roman nose, size was right. So in fun, I called “Here, kitty, kitty!” It turned tail and ran. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources told me there were many sightings last spring. One was shot in Lagrange GA a couple of years ago. Landscapers tell me there is one living in woods nearby. Time for part 2 of the story.

  • Rich

    They eat cats? And to think all this time I’ve always just bought them breakfast….

  • Ernie

    In the summer of 1987 I was at Bottcher’s Gap campground about 20 miles south of Monterery, CA. I was kneeling down looking through my telescope in the dead of night when I was startled by a growl. I looked to the edge of the clearing and there amongst the Chaparral was an outline of a Felis concolor, sitting and watching me. I took the red filter off my flashlight and shined it at the cat. It’s eyes lit up like two penlights, reflecting light back at me. It growled again. I stood up and waited for the possible attack. It got up and trotted off. It took several minutes for my heartrate and respiration to return to normal. I went back to observing and was never bothered again. I told the camp ranger the next day but he assured me that “they don’t come down to these low elevations”.

  • Debbie Jeter

    You should have looked in our area. Cougars have been around here for years and we are on the far East Coast! Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries have dismissed their existence, but I know for a fact they are here!

  • Candy

    I love Douglas Chadwick. I’ve read everything he’s written that I can get ahold of. I hope all those cougars stay away from people. No matter how difficult it is to catch a meal out there, they’re in far greater peril if they come looking where people are.

  • S. Bird

    I just saw a mountain lion, couger or panther, not sure which yesterday early evening running along the forest line as I drove down hwy. 34 between Franklin and Newnan, Georgia. Awesome sight.

  • jstaug

    My wife saw a cougar in our yard a month ago. One of our neighbors just got a trail cam photo probably of the same one pulling down a deer they had strung up. We back up to a few hundred acres of woods where wildlife could go undetected.

  • jt

    it looks 3d but my dad saw one i California

  • Phil chadwick

    The route of cougars through eastern Ontario and the Frontenac Arch Biosphere using the Thousand Islands as stepping stones across the St Lawrence River is pretty much certain. Many cougar sittings have been made. The Ministry of National Resources are non committal. I suspect cougars are in our back yard and am quite happy to have them around.

  • Emily Greer

    People has confirmed cougars as well as black bears and grey wolves in indiana for the last decade its time they are put back on the endangered list they need to be protect and restored in the hoosier state.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media