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Conservationists call for better management as cougars return to the Midwest

Cougars are an important part of the U.S. ecosystem. Keeping their populations healthy is necessary.
Cougars are an important part of the U.S. ecosystem. Keeping their populations healthy is necessary.
Photo by Joe Raedle

Cougars are moving back into the Midwestern U.S., prompting conservationists to start an urgent push to learn how to live with them and properly manage them, instead of killing them off. The problem, according to an article on Science Daily, is one of species management. In South Dakota, more than 60% of cougar deaths are attributable to human influence, including collisions, and illegal trapping and hunting.

Cougars haven't really lived in the Midwest for over a hundred years. However, over the last 20 to 30 years, cougar sightings in states like Illinois and Indiana have begun to increase. Researchers believe that there are a couple of things happening. The first is that increasing human habitation is forcing prey out of their natural areas, which is forcing the cougars to move, also.

The other thing they think is going on is that, since many states have laws that prohibit or restrict cougar hunting, populations are starting to recover from the over-hunting that went on for more than 150 years. Cougars, like most wild animals, are very territorial, and as populations begin growing again, the cats will move to new territory. That means moving east again.

In many western states, there are limited protections for cougars. Some states have classified them as "game species," meaning people can hunt them for sport. Texas considers them to be a "varmint" species, and allows hunting and killing without restriction or reporting. Florida's cougars, also known as Florida panthers, are considered endangered, and state and federal law keeps it protected (though many still die from car crashes, and some still kill them illegally).

The reason we need to better manage cougar populations, without resorting to hunting them into oblivion, is because they're large carnivores that keep herbivore populations in check. Keeping those populations in check helps to maintain the proper balance of plant life, also. They're a vital part of the ecosystem, and should not be considered a "nuisance animal" that must be destroyed. The same goes for other so-called "nuisance animals."

Oregon has a cougar population of roughly 5,700 cats. They consider themselves a success story, because 50 years ago, cougars were almost gone from the state. They're still working to reduce conflicts between people and cougars, which includes claims of property damage and injury.

One of their suggestions is to relocate problem cougars, which isn't especially effective because they have to move the cougar into an area with very low population numbers, so it's able to establish new territory. Another is to work to reduce cougar population density in the areas with the worst conflicts, but still maintain an overall healthy population size across the state.

In general, cougar management is a difficult, complicated process. But conservationists are right in that species management, plus educating people on how to live with cougars nearby, is better than simply trying to eliminate them. It's not just about saving cougars. It's about maintaining the entire ecosystem.