We are finding out more and more that park boundaries, state lines, and other types of demarcation mean nothing to our wildlife. They move where their instincts take them, and unless we have extensive fences and a network of other deterrents, there is little we can do to control their movements.
When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park a little more than a decade ago, it was foolhardy to believe they would all remain there. The wolves had been captured in British Columbia, moved to acclimation pens in Yellowstone, and then released into the wild a short time later.
They spread out, formed packs and reproduced. Soon a few wolves moved outside the vast park area and found trouble when they preyed on sheep and other livestock. No one should have been shocked — the wolves were doing what they have done for likely thousands of years — roaming, hunting, and surviving.
A number of states in the Midwest and a few in the South have seen a rash of reported mountain lion sightings in recent years. Not all of these areas are traditional mountain lion habitat, but the big cats are migrating and probably searching for new range. Wildlife biologists are saying this trend will likely increase as development and human involvement pushes deeper into what were previously wild areas, and some big cat populations grow.
Earlier this month, a mountain lion was observed just 50 miles from Milwaukee, marking the first time in more than a century that a big cat had been confirmed inside the Badger State.
In nearby Michigan, a park service employee sensed that she was not alone recently while walking along a trail inside the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. When she turned around, there stood a mountain lion – a cougar – that had silently crept from the shadows of the undergrowth and was apparently tracking her.
After following the park employee for about a half-hour, the mountain lion slipped back into the woods and disappeared. The federal government regards the Eastern cougar as near extinction, and according to its data the animal has not existed in Michigan for almost 100 years.
Wildlife biologists are not certain if the recent cougar sightings in Michigan represent the last members of that wild cougar population that was present there for centuries, or if the animals are migrants that have moved in from elsewhere. The big cats are highly skilled hunters that thrive on deer and can exceed 150 pounds as mature adults.
Michigan is experiencing the same phenomenon as Wisconsin, Minnesota and other states in the Great Lakes area. The federal government has an active cougar restoration project working in Florida, where the great cats are known as panthers, but similar efforts are not in place in the rest of the country.
Several wildlife conservation groups are fighting to get the mountain lions of the upper Midwest under some kind of protection. They are pushing for studies and research to collect the necessary data to properly address the issue.
Some government wildlife biologists theorize the cougars seen in Wisconsin and Michigan might be escaped pets, and that their genetics will likely make them the descendants of the cougars that were once widespread across South America and the western United States. The mountain lion species thrives in those areas, where it is not listed as endangered.
There is no shortage of doubting Thomases when it comes to mountain lion sightings. It wasn’t until a 100-pound male lion was killed by a conservation officer in Scottsbluff that wildlife officials in Nebraska confirmed the existence of the great beasts in that state.
A healthy population of mountain lions in the Black Hills of South Dakota has created a forced migration of young males, wildlife biologists say. The younger cats are forced from an area by the older, more mature males, and might roam several hundred miles in search of suitable habitat and food sources.
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there have been so many big cat sightings that more and more wildlife officials are conceding mountain lions are likely present. One veteran observer of all things outdoors in the U.P. said the escaped pet theory is ludicrous, since pet cats have been de-clawed, and a de-clawed animal could not hunt or survive.
The best assessment comes from one park ranger who rubbed his forehead, shook his head, and they said — off the record — that “there must be something out there.”
Matt Markey is The A-T’s oudoors columnist
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