Cougar Towns and River Cats

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Urban Meets Wild 

Cougars. Chicago. Unless it’s part of a salacious pitch for cable television, those are two words that wouldn’t seem to pair well.

On April 14, 2008, this proved to be the case. A cougar was shot to death by police officers in a residential Chicago alleyway. The event had an anomalous flavor at the time. Put it in the “Weird and Wild” section of the local news alongside crop circle reportage. But in November 2013, another cougar was killed by a wildlife agent 130 miles west of Chicago. No longer could the appearance of these seemingly wayward cougars be dismissed as freakish.

Before they decided to try their luck eastward, these five-foot-long felines who each weighed over one hundred pounds were residents of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Meaning that these cougars traveled around 1000 miles, perhaps hundreds more, as they picked their way across the landscape.

Will those ambitious few cats that follow share the same fate?

That depends.

In Illinois, verified sightings of large carnivores are trending upward (click here for an interactive map offering nifty navigation of these incidents). Most sightings have occurred in the northern third of the state and some are within proximity of Chicago. The statewide tally is at least six confirmed cougars since 2000; eleven confirmed wolves since 2000; and three confirmed black bears since 2008, with the most recent one roaming through backyards in May-June 2014.

Composite of verified sightings for all three species in Illinois. 2 April 2014. Mike Redmer, USFWS.

 

Unverified sightings—sightings that lack hard evidence in the form of a carcass, tracks, or a photo with identifiable landmarks—push those numbers up considerably.

These animals are not part of a massive wave; they are individuals, mostly young males, seeking new territories as their natal populations near carrying capacity. Black bear numbers in neighboring Wisconsin include an estimated 20,000-25,000 individuals. Missouri, which shares a border with southwestern Illinois, has a more modest population of 300 bears but a breeding group located fifteen miles from Illinois. Wolves so far have come from the Western Great Lakes population of Wisconsin and Minnesota, where there are around 800 and 2200 wolves, respectively. Of the three species, cougars have the longest journey to Illinois, with the closest source population in South Dakota—and yet, single cougars have proven their willingness to travel such distances and further. Moreover, habitat models suggest that other Upper Midwest states “exhibit high potential” for cougar recolonization, which may significantly close travel distances to Chicagoland.

Dispersal towards and into the Midwest. 2 April 2014. Mike Redmer, USFWS.

 

There are three key factors that will determine the success of these animals’ journeys: prey availability (check, more than sufficient); navigating an agricultural and urban landscape with thirteen million people, as well as a concrete spider web of deadly roads (iffy); and the black box of human tolerance (unknown). The latter is the most complicated factor, but what these species are physically up against is formidable.

I recently spoke to Mike Redmer, who works at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Chicago Illinois Field Office, about his sense of large carnivores’ prospects in Illinois. Part of our discussion was about a black bear who rambled into and then out of one of the larger forests in the state last summer, seeming to prefer the wilds of the suburbs to what many people would think of as “more natural” habitat. “The models tell us where the habitat most preferred by these animals exists, and are based on known dispersal tendencies and needs of the animals,” Redmer noted. “However, while models are important predictive tools, time will tell if the animals follow the predictions. These three species have differing levels of adaptability to human environments. But as their populations grow, they are also expanding their ranges and may well adapt to novel conditions. I would not rely entirely on models to say what large carnivores will and won’t adapt to.”

It is likely that we all will have to adapt, humans and nonhumans alike, to a new set of living conditions. According to Redmer, the large carnivores are more than capable of finding their way and are going to have “the final say unless socially people say it’s unacceptable to have them around.”

Social acceptance for large carnivores is an open question. Some early efforts are being made, however, to anticipate and prepare for the presence of these species in Illinois. For example, Redmer played a large role in organizing a one-day workshop held last September at the Brookfield Zoo, “Living with Black Bears, Cougars, and Wolves: Ecology and Human Dimensions.” Sponsored by Chicago Wilderness, the workshop attracted over two hundred attendees and brought together several experts to present on both the biology and sociology of coexisting with large carnivores.

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Stan Gehrt (a contributor to the forthcoming City Creatures book), who is well known for his coyote research in the Chicago area, provided an excellent overview, framing his presentation around what was on everyone’s minds: Are large carnivores likely to recolonize Illinois? Stan has seen coyotes defy expectations, including his own. Large carnivores face more challenges than coyotes, but Stan advised, “don’t underestimate them.”

River Cats

Let’s focus on cougars for a moment—I’ll address the status of wolves and black bears more directly in future posts—to appreciate the difficulties that large carnivores may face in establishing populations in Illinois and other states from which they were extirpated.

Before 2002, the last report of a cougar killed in Illinois was in 1862. During the settlement period of the Midwest, they “slipped quietly into oblivion,” according to wildlife ecologist John W. Laundré in Phantoms of the Prairie: The Return of Cougars to the Midwest. Sightings of cougars are difficult to unearth in historical documents. One reason for this absence, Laundré speculates, is that there never were a lot of cougars living in the Midwest. But more importantly, these large felines utilized edge habitats for hunting, relying on riparian corridors that cut across tall grass savannas. In Illinois, as it is for much of the Midwest, there are no mountain redoubts for lions. This is a land defined by grasses, with extensive forestlands dominating only the southern portion of the state. Substantial tree cover elsewhere is reliant on rivers. So beyond the behavioral secrecy of cougars—to see but not be seen—their territories were closely affiliated with rivers. So much so that Laundré calls them “river cats.”

Laundré provides a solid discussion of the contemporary prospects of these river cats on a state-by-state basis (for North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma), and where and how many cougars might survive based on their habitat preferences; their most likely travel routes; and a projected risk assessment (e.g., for livestock, for humans). Based on his habitat analysis, he thinks there may have been between 1100-2000 adults in the Midwest in the pre-settlement period. At present, considering additional factors such as social tolerance and urban sprawl, Laundré believes that the entire Midwest could eventually hold 700-1000 cougars; he estimates Illinois could support “fewer than fifty.”

What, if anything, does a landscape without its river cats lack? According to Laundré, taking an ecosystem-eye view, it’s not sheer numbers of carnivores but their impact upon prey behavior that makes the difference. “Their role may not have been center stage, out in the open grassland, but it was significant and vital to the prairie ecosystem,” he writes. Laundré then lists various ripple effects these river cats can have on the health of a waterway. The direct impact on deer numbers, he acknowledges, is “probably negligible,” but cougars do “create refuges from uncontrolled herbivory.” This may result in sizable areas where plant diversity and abundance can rebound. He often returns to this line of reasoning, calling cougars “the guardians of ecosystems” who create a “landscape of fear” for deer. As he puts it, “Though limited in distribution and overall numbers, cougars were no minor actors in the great prairie performance.”

Laundré’s ambitious recommendations, which he argues should be a national goal, deserve consideration: reestablish and protect riparian areas along all streams and rivers in the country; create green belts around all cities that exist near rivers; use native prairie to reestablish regional stepping-stone corridors; and discover and alleviate habitat bottlenecks and barriers.

Roadblocks

Such barriers are rife near urban areas, where roads function as asphalt walls, propelling vehicles across their surfaces at deadly speeds.

In regard to the road-related problems faced by large carnivores living near urban areas, Los Angeles provides a point of comparison for Chicagoans to consider. The Santa Monica Mountains (SMM), a place where periurban cougars roam, is a 250-square-mile area bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south, the 101 freeway and development to the north, and the sprawling infrastructure of Los Angeles to the east. Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, estimates that there’s room enough for only about ten mountain lions in the SMM. (Mountain lion is one of many regional synonyms for Puma concolor, others being puma, catamount, and the aforementioned cougar and river cat).

When I spoke to Riley by phone last December, he recently had helped radio collar one of those cougars. The big cat had been spotted traversing the backyard wall of a Los Angeles home and was one his team knew, having marked her as a kitten. In contrast to the mortal treatment that Chicagoland’s cougars have received thus far, she got a tranquilizer dart and was relocated to wilder terrain. Journeying in or near urban habitat is not a cougar’s preference, but there’s not a lot of territorial elbowroom in the Greater Los Angeles Area (human pop. 16.4 million).

A map of three mountain lion home ranges in the Santa Monica Mountains mountain lion study area, showing the isolation of the SMM (from www.urbancarnivores.com).

 

For the cougars in the SMM, Los Angeles’ freeways are barriers that, according to Riley, are “near-absolute.” In general, Riley told me, all young males and half of young females disperse to somewhere new; but in the SMM, “They can’t get out. And [it’s] very rare that one can get in.” This presents a troubling genetic scenario. Inbreeding could eventually destroy the population from the inside out. A temporary reprieve was provided by a young male cougar who found his way into the SMM in 2009, bringing a much needed infusion of genetic diversity with him. But now he’s bred on more than one occasion with his daughter. No physiological defects are yet apparent in these urbane cougars but Riley feels the clock ticking.

Connectivity of this cougar population with others in California is therefore essential to their future viability. Roads are much on Riley’s mind, and though a wildlife overpass transecting highway 101 has been suggested for more than a decade, the $10-20 million it would take to build it has prevented its construction. Riley was encouraged to see a campaign launched in September 2014 by the National Wildlife Federation to raise the funds for an overpass that would allow for the successful dispersal of young mountain lions.

Mountain lions  are a flagship species for the overpass because of their genetic needs, but Riley maintains, “We care about connectivity not just for mountain lions but for everything.” He asserts that helping mountain lions could help many others: “People are definitely interested in them so they can serve that role. They can be an umbrella species in that they need so much space that if you conserve them you can conserve a lot of things.”

In the Midwest, there is much that can be gleaned from Angelenos, particularly in anticipating the most likely corridors for large carnivores, identifying potential bottlenecks and barriers caused by roadways, and providing less restricted movement between large areas of habitat. This should be of special concern near Chicago, where a mesh of roadways may create habitat “islands,” ensnaring cougars who would rather be on their way to more promising destinations.

It is likely that other cities around the world will also soon be dealing with a similar set of issues. As the urban footprint lengthens, metropolitan regions are proving homey to urban adapters as well as providing important way stations for wildlife in transit to new territories. A pack of wolves, for example, lives fifteen miles from Berlin, Germany, and individual wolves have been sighted in the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries on the planet. A few thousand black bears forage across the garden state of New Jersey. And a small population of leopards are skirting in and out of Mumbai, India.

Living alongside large carnivores raises questions not only about how we might better coexist with other species; it challenges us to consider the values that coexistence might entail. As Riley put it, “We still have mountain lions in this metropolitan area and that’s an amazing thing. If one day we wake up, and, say we don’t maintain sufficient connectivity, and we continue to develop in the Santa Monica Mountains, it’s gonna be a huge loss that people will feel in a spiritual and aesthetic sense regardless of what the ecological impacts will be.”

Crossroads: Connectivity of Physical and Moral Landscapes

Large carnivores can play significant roles in contributing to native floral and faunal diversity, yet I find myself circling back to a set of questions that might be different than those of a wildlife biologist or manager. They are, in ascending order of idealism: 1) How can these dispersal events broaden public awareness about the shared relationships between urban and wild lands? 2) What can be done to increase curiosity, tolerance, respect, and wonder for these species, such that their presence is not only accepted but favorably regarded? and 3) In what ways could these species prompt a long-term vision and action plan for bioregional coexistence?

These questions tread beyond the facts of carnivore dispersal into the territory of the values of carnivore dispersal.

Illinois, in my estimation, is at a social and ecological crossroads. The initial forays of cougars, black bears, and wolves thus far have ended poorly for these animals. But Illinois need not be a cul-de-sac of death (in ecological terminology, a “population sink”) for large carnivores. There is an opportunity, a need brought to the surface by these early dispersers, to conceive of a connected landscape that provides safe passage—under roads, around towns, between farms—and allows for outcomes other than death.

For cougars, black bears, and wolves, movement across the landscape is a matter of survival. For our own species, facilitating that movement is a matter of becoming inhabitants of place rather than consumers of space. Such a perspective asks that we consider what this landscape needs to flourish as a living system. The river cats and other large carnivores are wordlessly posing the question to us as they move across the Prairie State.

Acknowledgments and Further Resources

Deep gratitude to Mike Redmer and Seth Riley for sharing their thoughts with me.

In addition to the many articles that are hyperlinked in this post, the Cougar Network is an excellent resource for news and research about cougars in North America. For information about urban carnivore research and management more generally, see the Urban Carnivores website.

An important document for sussing out the potential success of these Midwestern dispersers is Julia Smith’s master’s thesis, which breaks down the social (i.e., promising human attitudes) and ecological (i.e., promising nonhuman habitat) dimensions, providing a data set for prognosticating upon the chances of cougar recolonization. According to Smith, who adds the caveat that human tolerance is perhaps the most critical factor, there appears to be a high probability that wolves and bears will establish breeding populations in Illinois; for cougars this is less likely, given their more extensive habitat needs, but they will almost certainly continue dispersing through Illinois even if they don’t opt for residency.

Image credits (top to bottom): Wayne Dumbleton, “Cougar,” Creative Commons 2.0 license; Mike Redmer, USFWS, maps of Illinois verified sightings and large carnivore dispersal to the Midwest; screenshot of Chicago Wilderness workshop flyer; jjjj56cp, “197e cougar concentration,” Creative Commons 2.0 license; screenshot from http://www.urbancarnivores.com/mountain-lions-2/USFS ; wildlife overpass, istock.com; Tyler Sichelski, “Cougar Crossing,” Creative Commons 2.0 license.

  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for the Center for Humans and Nature Press. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Center for Humans and Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
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