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Young, Restless Cougars Roaming Eastward

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

CHICAGO, April 16 -- "Go east, young cougar!"

That approach seems to apply to a growing number of young male cougars striking out from the Black Hills of South Dakota in search of new territory.

A cougar shot and killed Monday night by police in a bustling, trendy North Side Chicago neighborhood known more for its upscale meet markets than for 122-pound carnivores is probably such a case.

Biologists suspect that DNA tests will confirm that the cougar is the same one spotted numerous times in Wisconsin making its way toward Illinois over the past three months. And DNA testing on a blood sample collected by state conservation officials tracking the Wisconsin cougar indicated he is almost certainly a wild cougar from the Black Hills, meaning the animal would have traveled more than 1,000 miles.

Government protections on cougars (also called mountain lions and panthers) in the Upper Plains states have caused once-threatened populations to rebound to the point of saturation, forcing more of the big cats to migrate far afield.

"They have to disperse and set up a home range of their own, or when they come of age the dominant male will kill them," said Bill Heatherly, wildlife programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, which has instituted a 12-person mountain lion response team.

Cougars are native farther east in the Midwest but were wiped out about a century ago by farmers protecting their livestock and by urbanization.

But since 1990, about 40 cougar sightings have been confirmed, mostly in Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri, according to the Cougar Network, a nonprofit group that tracks the animals.

A cougar roaming from the Black Hills to Chicago would have to cross numerous highways and rivers. But Southern Illinois University wildlife ecologist Clay Nielsen said that would be no problem.

"It could have traveled directly from South Dakota, it could have lingered a while in Iowa or Minnesota," he said. "Oftentimes animals follow natural travel corridors such as rivers and streams. The Mississippi River is not a significant barrier, especially if crossed when there is ice or in summer when the flow is low."

Michael Schwartz, a biologist at the Wildlife Genetics Lab of the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station, which tested the Wisconsin cougar's DNA, declined to speculate on the Chicago cat's path, calling such guesswork more uncertain than the stock market.

"Just when we think we know how an animal may move through a landscape, it does something different," he said.

There were a handful of cougar sightings in Winnetka and Wilmette, wealthy suburbs north of Chicago, in the weeks leading to the cougar's death. Reports of a cougar started pouring in to Chicago police in the late afternoon Monday, just as many schools were letting out. Authorities warned people to stay off the street while they searched for the cat.

While some Chicago residents expressed outrage that the cat was killed rather than tranquilized, police and major animal welfare organizations said authorities had little choice. "This was a young mountain lion that was sooner or later going to get hungry," said David Dinger, acting president of the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago.

And, according to veterinarian Donna Alexander of Cook County Animal and Rabies Control, the Chicago cougar jumped six feet into the air even after being shot. "A tranquilizer dart doesn't take effect right away, and they can jump 12 feet in the air and run 70 miles an hour after they are hit," she said.

The county is doing tests on the cougar's body, looking for clues to its migratory path, genealogy and health. "We're looking for patterns of diseases coming from wildcats, like cougars that are becoming more prominent in the U.S. and could affect domestic cats," Alexander said.

Preliminary DNA tests can ascertain whether a cougar is of the South American variety, which means it is most certainly an escaped pet, or a wild member of the North American variety. More detailed DNA results are compared with an extensive database of cougars from North and South Dakota and Montana to home in on the cougar's birthplace.

Though roaming males will probably become more and more common, scientists say it will still be a long time -- if ever -- before stable breeding communities are established outside such places as the Black Hills.

"The males and the few females out there would have to find each other and mate," Nielsen said. "A lot of things have to come together. There has to be some Luther Vandross and champagne. It's a big uncertainty if and when that will happen."

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