All the hoopla resulted from the release of a single scientific paper which concluded that lions were returning to some Midwestern states.
The following is a synopsis of these three important scientific reports and MLF's conclusions on what this might portend for the eastern return of Puma concolor.
Between 1990 and 2008, 178 confirmed lion sightings were recorded by researchers and state wildlife agencies throughout the Midwest, the East, and parts of Canada.
Their conclusions are that sightings of mountain lions have become more common in the region over recent years and it appears that lions prefer to stay close to their traditional habitat (woodland forests, riverine corridors and steep or broken terrain) since 79 percent of all confirmed sighting occurred within 50 kilometers of such terrain. LaRue's team also validated the current understanding that young male lions tend to travel farther than female lions. CRF's report posits that sightings alone are unreliable in determining a number for how many lions are actually in the Midwest. CRF also believes the increase in sightings isn't the result of anything new, but instead is a response to something started decades ago when western game managers started regulating the killing of lions.
CRF's report agrees with the evidence that young male lions are traveling long distances looking for mates, but takes this as evidence that true recolonization (breeding pairs, not just long treks by males) is a slow process of incremental advances. The report also noted that current lion hunting policies in "breeder" states could threaten forty years of species recovery and stop the eastern expansion of the species.
Prior to their research it had been assumed that the lions reaching Missouri had come from Texas by following what is known as "least-cost pathways" or the preferred habitats and the easiest landscapes for lions to traverse.
In just a six month period there were over a dozen confirmed reports of lions from all over the state.
After careful analysis by the RMRS on hair and scat samples collected at sighting locations, the results came back that all these reports were of the same, solitary individual lion. What is actually happening is a great example of research which addresses differing questions with differing methods and how science puts together pieces of a puzzle and begins to illustrate the big picture in context from isolated facts. There has been an increase in the number of "confirmed" mountain lion sightings in states that do not currently host viable populations.
The overwhelming majority of sighted lions are young transient males and not breeding pairs. Mountain lions are not necessarily using the most obvious wildlife corridors to reach a particular destination. The ability to study lion territorial habits and dispersal patterns has steadily improved over the past two decades with technological and methodological improvements in DNA testing, radio and satellite tracking, power supplies, microchips, remote camera and video monitoring, capture and release procedures, and researchers sharing data across state lines. In fact, dispersals far to the east may have been occurring sporadically for many years, and only now are we able to accurately document and confirm them.


Until genetic identification of lion lineages became available, there was little reason to believe that any particular sighting might indicate a real long-range dispersal. For example, no one predicted that the mountain lion killed in Connecticut in June 2011 had traveled over 2,000 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota until DNA results were matched to sightings and DNA samples taken along the lion's eastward path through South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, (up through Canada), then New York and finally Connecticut, and someone connected the dots. Moreover, in this digital and cellular age, potential lion sightings are easily and rapidly reported by more people allowing scientists to respond and confirm those sightings faster than ever before. One of the most definitive ways to count the number of lions is to base censuses on physical evidence rather than eye-witness reports. In Cougar Rewilding Foundation's report, researchers eliminated all identified duplicate records and narrowed their list of potential lions down to 76 over a twelve-and-a-half year period. Of the 76 lions that were actually confirmed to have entered the Midwest, all were killed except two that were captured and held in captivity.
Finding at least one mate and establishing a resident territory is the end goal of any dispersal.
Only twelve females have been documented making the long dispersal into uncharted portions of the Midwest, averaging only one to two per year over the eleven year analysis period. The tediously slow migration of individual females moving east means that it takes many generations for lions to expand the range of their breeding populations even when individual males have wandered thousands of miles away. To make recolonization even less likely, the Midwest's prairie country is not prime lion habitat.
Experts agree that the preponderance of young male lions traveling record distances is an indication of the lack of females across the landscapes they are traversing. Basically what is happening is that after being kicked out of the den by their mothers, a few young dispersing males head off in an easterly direction from places like the Black Hills of South Dakota. Both landscape and population genetics are important factors for helping us better understand wildlife movement and health. What was once the greatest promise as a source for a return of breeding lion populations to the Midwest is now being turned into a graveyard of dreams.
And what about those Midwestern states that would be the recipients of this eastward migration of a formally extirpated species?
Unfortunately, lions aren't safe even in those Midwestern states that aren't actively trying to kill them.
The natural return of the American lion to portions of its historic range has long been noticed by the public and now verified by science. First, key population cores along the eastern edge of the species' current range (such as the Black Hills region) need to be protected from local policies and actions that would eliminate them as national source populations or "breeding colonies." No matter what members of state game commissions might think, a majority of lions live and breed on federal lands and subsequently belong to all Americans.


Third, protective legislation needs to be enacted now in those states which do not yet have viable lion populations. The return of the American lion to Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and even Iowa should be a sign of vindication for the modern environmental movement.
In your own words, illustrate the value of mountain lions, the threats they face, and why you hope to see them survive someday on your local landscape. Write letters to your local officials, state legislators and governor, as well as to your Congressperson and U.S. Write letters to the editor of your local newspapers, particularly those which cover lion news stories. Support the scientific efforts to map wildlife corridors in your state, preserve the corridors intact, and be proactive to bypass any roadblocks. Keep up to date with ongoing scientific research and news stories about mountain lions by signing up for MLF's updates. Since the late 1970's, mountain lions have been dispersing into as well as establishing small breeding populations in five island-like habitats east of the Rockies: Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Charles M. In this edition of our audio podcast ON AIR, volunteer Craig Fergus interviews wildlife biologist Clayton Nielsen about his work mapping dispersal corridors for mountain lions into the Midwest, and analyzing areas of good habitat in anticipation of potential breeding populations in the region.
Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) presented the results of their recent DNA analysis of cougar sightings in the Midwest, specifically focusing on the increased number of reports in Missouri. Nielsen's work has provided lion researchers with a good map of important wildlife corridors that could be used by lions and other wildlife and should be protected, but sometimes the above mentioned obstacles work to prevent young lions from even starting down those wildlife roads.
Russell National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Montana, the Badlands in North Dakota, the Black Hills in South Dakota and Wyoming, and the Pine Ridge of northwestern Nebraska. Clay Nielsen published a paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management analyzing those sightings. Nielsen's research indicated that mountain lions arriving in Missouri most likely traveled established corridors from Texas, but genetic evidence proved otherwise.



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