Midwest cougar comeback not quite reaching Illinois

Carbondale, Ill. — Math is at odds with those who believe Illinois – especially the southern half – is home to wild cougars.

Take 120 trail cameras set up in the 12 southernmost counties. Add 100,000 images of wild animals captured by those cameras. What does it equal?

Thousands of deer. Hundreds of opossums. One armadillo.

And zero cougars.

In wake of a report earlier this month suggesting cougars are making a comeback in the Midwest, one of the authors of that report points out that Illinois is far behind Nebraska and other states as a cougar destination.

Clay Nielsen, principal investigator on the study on which the report “Cougars are Recolonizing the Midwest: Analysis of Cougar Confirmations During 1990–2008,” said the area of the state most suitable for cougars – the Shawnee National Forest – remains cougar-free, as far as he and others at the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University Carbondale can tell.

“In our studies of foxes, coyotes and bobcats, we set up trail cameras in the 12 southern counties, and of the 100,000 animals caught on camera, not a single cougar showed up,” Nielsen said. “If they were indeed here, one certainly would have appeared.”

That said, Nielsen is confident cougars are roaming in states to the west and north of Illinois. Recent media attention centered on an paper he authored for “The Journal of Wildlife Management.” Nielsen helped with data collection, analysis and writing the paper, which used confirmed cougar sightings, carcasses, tracks, photos, video and DNA evidence collected from 1990 to 2008 in 14 states and provinces throughout Midwestern states.

Nielsen, associate professor of Forest Wildlife in the SIUC Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory and Department of Forestry, teamed with Michelle LaRue, a former graduate student at SIU on the study. The Cougar Network and the Colorado

Division of Parks and Wildlife also pitched in.

LaRue, who was Nielsen’s master’s student at SIUC from 2005 to 2007 and currently is pursuing her doctoral degree in Minnesota, served as senior author on the cougar study.

Nielsen and LaRue said there is evidence that a 100-year trend of species decline due to loss of habitat and other factors is reversing. Nielsen said the findings also raise new questions about how humans might share space with cougars, which were driven out of the Midwest by around 1900.

Nielsen said cougars have been gone from Illinois long before that.

But over the last 20 years, there has been proof that cougars are returning, especially in places like Nebraska. Dividing their study area into an east and west region, the researchers calculated the number and types of confirmed cougar sightings.

In all, they identified 178.

Confirmations ranged from just one in Kansas, Michigan and Ontario to a high of 67 in Nebraska. According to Nielsen, 80 percent of the confirmations occur within about 30 miles of forests with steep terrain and low human presence.

The finding of a cougar carcass was the most frequent form of confirming a sighting. Roughly 76 percent of the dead cougars found were males.

“That’s evidence that the male is more likely to roam into new territories in search of food,” Nielsen said. “Cougars would be top carnivores in Midwestern ecosystems, affecting prey species populations.”

The white-tailed deer would be the primary prey item, Nielsen added.

Nielsen and LaRue previously teamed up on another study concerning cougar populations. That study, which looked at potential cougar habitat in nine Midwest states west of the Mississippi River, also pointed toward the cougar reclaiming its old turf. Nielsen and LaRue found that Arkansas, Missouri and Minnesota have substantial areas that could attract and support cougars.

“These findings indicate that the public and wildlife managers may need to deal with increasing cougar populations in the near future if recolonization continues,” Nielsen said.

Despite an increase in reported sightings all across the state in recent years, there have been only three confirmed wild cougars in Illinois since 2000.

Incidentally, the day after Nielsen’s cougar report hit newspapers, TV news and the Internet, a man walking through Rock Spring Park in Alton claimed to have walked up on a cougar in broad daylight, at 10 a.m. The big cat rested on a trail in front of Ron Young, of Godfrey, according to the Alton Telegraph.

DNR, Alton police and park officials were not able to confirm the June 15 sighting.

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