MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa -- "Iowa is the state with the highest mountain lion hysteria."
So explained Ron Andrews, furbearer resource specialist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
This cat was killed on an Iowa road in 2001, marking a return of the animals.
(Ed Weiner -- Iowa Department Of Natural Resources)
His standing-room-only audience was mostly farmers and their wives, weatherworn men with feed caps, sturdy women with sensible shoes. They looked more suspicious than hysterical. They had crowded into a community center here in the heart of hog and corn country to find out the skulking particulars on the world's fourth-largest cat.
State records show that mountain lions disappeared from Iowa in 1867. But with increasing and unnerving regularity, the ambush predator -- which will kill and eat house pets, livestock and humans but much prefers deer -- is back on the prowl, in Iowa and across the Midwest. It is turning up on farms, in suburbs and even in occasional appearances downtown.
In the past 12 months, 19 have been shot, killed with arrows, hit by trains, run over by cars, captured, photographed or detected through DNA evidence of their midwestern travels, according to the Cougar Network, a group that monitors eastward movement of the cats.
The presence of the mountain lions, many of which have been found with freshly killed deer in their stomachs, is a startling signal that modern suburban and exurban America -- without intending to do so -- has transformed itself into superb wildlife habitat. With deer nearly everywhere, the big cats, it seems, are finding haute cuisine in the land of big-box stores.
Last year, one ran through downtown Omaha. Last month, one was shot in the suburbs of Sioux City. This month, a radio-collared mountain lion was spotted in the outskirts of Grand Forks, N.D. One was photographed in mid-October on a farm near Marshalltown in central Iowa, a confirmed sighting that deeply disturbed people at the recent meeting here.
State game officials say mountain lions have triggered widespread paranoia, with many Iowans worrying about the beasts in an excessive and unhealthy way. False sightings are rampant. Scouting groups have canceled field trips. At mountain lion briefings conducted by game officials across Iowa, farmers have announced that they no longer go out at night to tend livestock -- without a gun.
"I hear something screeching in the night in the woods outside my porch," Jan Chantland, a farm wife, complained at the meeting here. "It just sends chills up my spine."
There are also rumors across the Midwest that state game agencies -- sometimes using black helicopters -- are secretly planting mountain lions in farm country. Before the Marshalltown meeting began, these rumors danced around the community center. Andrews, the state's leading expert on mountain lions, began his slide presentation by attacking the rumors head-on.
"We did not, we have not and we will not release mountain lions in Iowa," said Andrews, who handed out a document that repeated the denial in boldface type.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, in state documents, also denies involvement in mountain lion reintroductions. The rumors and official denials are rife, too, in Missouri, where wildlife officials say that hunters fear the state is smuggling in mountain lions to shorten the deer-hunting season.
Farmers and ranchers, as an enduring rule, hate mountain lions, which are also called cougars, pumas, panthers and catamounts. By any name, until recent decades, they were treated as no-good varmints and killed for bounty, for fun, for Manifest Destiny. The cats disappeared from the Midwest by about 1900.
Their unwelcome comeback in the Corn Belt, which began about a decade ago and has steadily gathered momentum, is being driven by two historically significant biological phenomena, wildlife ecologists say.