Within the next 25 years, cougars may recolonize portions of their natural habitats in the U.S., according to a recent study led by researchers from the University of Minnesota and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Cougars, also referred to as mountain lions, pumas and panthers, are considered large feline predators. They are skilled hunters and prefer to feed on deer and other small animals. Though, unlike other large cats such as lions, cougars cannot roar. They actually tend to purr more like common house cats.
The recent study represents the first to examine when and where cougar populations may be able to make a comeback, according to a news release. In order to better understand the large cat's viability, researchers examined more than 40 years worth of demographic and geographical data regarding the animals' natural habitat range. Population establishment is dependent upon the presence of females, so researchers took a special interest in data regarding the dispersal of female cougars in order to accurately assess where the large animals could potentially spread.
"We didn't just look at where they are now, but where they could go," Michelle LaRue, an author of the recent study from the University of Minnesota, said in the release. "These are predictive models, but we feel that our study could be an important tool for conservation of this species and education about a large carnivore that can sometimes incite fear."
Cougars are known to inhabit various habitats throughout western North America, a small region in Florida, and most of South America. Currently, breeding populations are living in the Black Hills of South Dakota, as well as in North Dakota and Nebraska. However, according to the recent study, cougars may soon reestablish themselves in Arkansas and Missouri as well.
Before hunting and habitat loss, cougars were some of the most widespread mammals on Earth. Population declines also skyrocketed when Europeans settled in the U.S. and forced the animals out West.
"The reason cougars used to exist across the country and now they don't is because of people," Clayton K. Nielsen, co-author from Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory and Department of Forestry, explained. "Now that this large carnivore is expected to come back into new areas, we need have a clear plan for education and conservation."
However, between 1990 and 2015 more than 800 cougars have been spotted in the U.S. While this suggests the animals are making a comeback, researchers noted that the next step is to assess how humans may react to growing populations of cougars.
"We now have the information necessary for government agencies to plan for ecosystem-based management and societal attitudes toward the recolonization of this predator," LaRue, who is also a the executive director of the Cougar Network, added. "Given that cougars are expected to inhabit areas where they haven't been for more than 100 years, this will pose considerable challenges for wildlife managers and the general public in the future."
Their study was recently published in the journal Ecological Modelling.
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