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Grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars/ mountain lions,bobcats, wolverines, lynx, foxes, fishers and martens are the suite of carnivores that originally inhabited North America after the Pleistocene extinctions. This site invites research, commentary, point/counterpoint on that suite of native animals (predator and prey) that inhabited The Americas circa 1500-at the initial point of European exploration and subsequent colonization. Landscape ecology, journal accounts of explorers and frontiersmen, genetic evaluations of museum animals, peer reviewed 20th and 21st century research on various aspects of our "Wild America" as well as subjective commentary from expert and layman alike. All of the above being revealed and discussed with the underlying goal of one day seeing our Continent rewilded.....Where big enough swaths of open space exist with connective corridors to other large forest, meadow, mountain, valley, prairie, desert and chaparral wildlands.....Thereby enabling all of our historic fauna, including man, to live in a sustainable and healthy environment. - Blogger Rick

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Published in the most recent COUGAR REWILDING newsletter, Iowa resident Shane Griffin provides us with an informed narrative of the history of Pumas in Iowa and their current status there.......................Thanks to Chris Spatz and his COUGAR REWILDING colleagues for giving me permission to post this note-------a timely follow-up to Noah Sudarsky's MOUNTAIN LIONS IN AMERICA article that we all enjoyed reading over the past week

Mountain Lions in IowaShane Griffin

My love for the outdoors started when I was a child visiting my aunt and uncle at their rural Nevada, Iowa home. Their home was neatly and respectfully tucked into the woods over-looking a small stream shaded in historic oaks and elms. My cousin and I would spend many hours exploring the woodland and tromping through the narrow creek that wound through their property. I remember looking at the animal tracks pressed perfectly into the muddy banks; some raccoon, some skunk or possum and an occasional dog track. I felt at ease in these woods and it was a refreshing change of scenery from the flat cropland landscape where I lived.

My family moved to Colorado when I was in high school where I spent many weekends with my friends and family camping, hiking and enjoying the mountains. There was always talk of the danger of bears and mountain lions, but I never saw either one nor felt threatened. I may have been more attentive to my actions and of the surroundings, but I never felt stalked or hunted by any of these animals.

Eventually, I returned to Iowa, got married, had children, and lived a busy family life. But I still got outside when I found the chance; I raised my children to respect nature and taught them what I could. We would see deer, raccoons, possum, and the occasional coyote, but nothing more than that. I had always thought of the wildlife of Iowa as safe and preserved throughout history, and likewise, I had always thought of Iowans as respectful guardians of the wilderness and conservation. But one event changed how I view my home state and revealed many fallacies of Iowans' view of nature and wilderness; in December 2011, a mountain lion was shot and killed near Blencoe, Iowa. I had heard reports of mountain lions spotted on trail cameras or being shot by hunters before and thought little of it, but the animal shot in Blencoe triggered something within my soul and roused my imagination from its modern day slumber to investigate the behavior of this animal.

History and Ecology

When settlers arrived in the Iowa Territory in 1833 the state was full of wildlife and its prairies and marshes were pristine. Rivers and streams flowed with clear water with an abundance of healthy fish populations that are now completely absent or less abundant from many of our waterways. Large herds of bison swept across the land while dense flocks of passenger pigeons blotted out the sun. Man's impact was near non-existent, but in 1871 when the last of the ninety-nine counties were settled; the territory's population swelled and in just thirty-eight years the population was 1.2 million people. Wildlife management and game laws were not yet established and the new settlers over-hunted, trapped, or drove out most of the large wildlife; most notably bison, elk, bear, wolves, and mountain lions. The prairie was plowed under and many of the wetlands and marshes were drained to make way for crops, forming the grid-like patchwork of farms and roads that we know Iowa to be today. In a short amount of time settlers had destroyed the prairie ecosystem forever.

It is hard to imagine what Iowa looked like in pre-settlement times, but many historians have compared it to the Serengeti of Africa. Many explorers commented on the abundance of game animals and predators; and some of the first settlers described the landscape and the wildlife they observed in their journals and diaries. A Country So Full of Game: The Story of Wildlife in Iowa, by James Dinsmore, discussed the history, ecology and the extirpation of many of Iowa's native wildlife species, including the mountain lion. Dinsmore writes about the various sightings and encounters recorded by the settlers. Settlers viewed mountain lions and other predators as a threat and the animals were shot, poisoned, trapped and wiped out of the state by 1867 when the last recorded mountain lion shooting occurred in Appanoose County. The loss of habitat and prey may have also added to the extirpation of the animal. In the early 1900s, Iowa formed its first game laws and since the mountain lion was previously extirpated from the state it was simply left off of the books. Today, the mountain lion still remains an unprotected animal in the Iowa.

Since that time, many other game species have returned to their original range or were re-introduced by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. For example, white-tailed deer were completely wiped out of the state because of over-hunting, loss of habitat and lack of game laws. White-tailed deer that are hunted today are the descendents of captive herds that escaped and from individual deer that migrated into Iowa from neighboring states. The mountain lions' prey of choice is deer and Iowa's deer population is so abundant that some residents consider deer a pest.

The mountain lion (or cougar, puma, panther and catamount) is a reclusive animal whose historical range covered nearly all of the United States; it had been pushed into the Rocky Mountains where they are less bothered by humans and have adequate habitat. Isolated populations also exist in the Black Hills of South Dakota and in the Pine Ridge area of Nebraska. The mountain lion populations in the west are currently healthy and thriving with an abundance of prey, intact wildlife management practices and game laws of the species, and a society that is more tolerant toward predators.

Biologically, adult male mountain lions are intolerant of other males and fiercely defend their territory. But female mountain lions are more tolerant of other females and their territory tends to overlap. A female mountain lion will give birth to one or two cubs and the cubs will stay with their mother until 18-24 months of age; then are forced out to find their own territory. Young male mountain lions disperse until they find a female or they can take over another male mountain lion territory with females in it. This dispersal of young males is the phenomenon occurring in Iowa and other Midwestern states. Young males will walk up to one hundred miles in one day in search of new territory. They are looking for one or more female mountain lions and an abundance of food and will not stop walking until they find a suitable territory or die from being run over by cars, shot, or disease.

It is likely the dispersing males are following river corridors into Iowa and other states. River and stream corridors are the highways of wildlife and are sparsely habited by humans and largely untouched by agriculture. They are also heavily wooded and provide the cover necessary to conceal mountain lions during their migratory dispersals. Iowa has many rivers and a large deer population aiding in the movement of the young males in search of a mate. Dr. John W. Laundre, in Phantoms of the Prairie, theorizes that historically the mountain lions primary habitat was the cover and concealment of rivers and streams and not the wide-open prairie. Dr. Laundre writes for this reason the mountain lion of the Midwest should be more appropriately called the "river lion".

At this time, there has been no evidence of females among the sightings and killings of the mountain lions in Iowa, thus no evidence of an established breeding population in Iowa; they have all been young males which is typical. These young males may stay for a while, but are simply passing through the state. So it is difficult for the wildlife biologists to accurately account for how many mountain lions are in Iowa at any one time, but one thing is clear is that the mountain lion is naturally migrating into the state.

Sightings in Iowa

In the 1990's the Iowa Department of Natural Resources began to receive reports of mountain lion sightings in western Iowa. The reports became so numerous that in 2001 the Iowa DNR published a fact sheet on mountain lions and issued a press release of the possibility of free-ranging mountain lions in the state. In August 2001, a mountain lion was struck and killed by an automobile in Harlan, Iowa; marking the first confirmed mountain lion in Iowa in 134 years.

Since 2000 there have been around one thousand unconfirmed sightings of mountain lions reported to the DNR. Unconfirmed sighting are reports from public citizens to Iowa DNR that cannot be verified as to whether it is a mountain lion or not because there is no picture proof to show that is what they saw without a doubt. Mistaken identity accounts for approximately 95% of mountain lion reports; citizens are confusing large dog, bobcats, or feral farm cats for mountain lions. The only confirmations the Iowa DNR will accept are original photos or an actual kill of the animal.

In 2011, one mountain lion was confirmed with a trail camera in Clinton County, one was shot and killed in Monona County, and a third was shot and killed one mile north of the Iowa border in Minnesota near Dickinson County. More recently, on October 4, 2012, a young male mountain lion was shot in a residential neighborhood in Des Moines.
This represents a dilemma in the state as this animal returns to its old territory. Fear and wonder abound in Iowans' minds as this elusive creature lurks in what woodlands remain in the state and the issue of protection for this animal remains unrealized. In order for this animal to be protected the Iowa legislature has to legally list the mountain lion as a game animal. Iowans are split on the issue whether to protect this animal or to be able to shoot this animal on sight to prevent it from re-claiming its historical habitat possibly posing a threat to human safety or livestock depredation. Vince Evelsizer, Iowa DNR's Furbearer Biologist, states that "time will tell whether the mountain lion re-establishes itself in the state or not, but there is clear evidence from DNA testing on the few animals that have been killed in Iowa that they are capable of moving long distances into our state from areas like the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Rocky Mountain West, or even from a smaller established population in Nebraska." To allow the animal to migrate to, and establish a breeding population in some of its former range, like Iowa, the animal needs protection and to do so would mean that the Iowa legislature would have to recognize the presence of the animal in the state and legally term the animal "a wildlife species of Iowa." This is easier said than done. Evelsizer states that, "it is up to the people of Iowa and out Legislature to decide this together collectively whether or not they should have this protection, not the Iowa DNR. However, we would provide technical information when asked during this process. Our role would then be to manage them responsibly as we do with other wildlife and we would do this."

Can We Coexist?

Two legislative efforts have been made to place the mountain lion in the Iowa code as designated wildlife, but in an agricultural state like Iowa, the issue became political and the measure failed both times. Without a doubt the biggest opponent of legal protection for the mountain lion is agricultural interest groups. In the early days of settlement, people killed predators indiscriminately to protect their livestock and themselves. The Iowa Cattlemen's Association has a policy that reads, "The Iowa Cattlemen's Association will oppose all attempts to give legal protection to mountain lions, wolves, and bears to protect the interests of the cattle industry and human population." The public has fears of a mountain lion population re-establishing itself in Iowa. The biggest fear is an attack on humans. The last reported mountain lion fatality in the United States was in 2008 in New Mexico. Mountain lions are elusive and tend to leave humans alone. Evelsizer says, "The wild card though is if there is a case of a captive-reared mountain lion that had been illegally released the animal may not be afraid of humans and may present a safety issue or the possibility of a close encounter with a mountain lion." Other concerns of the public may be attacks on pets as mountain lions prey mostly on deer, but they are opportunistic hunters and may take smaller prey, such as raccoons, possum, dogs, cats, and birds. Beyond these concerns the presence of a mountain lion elicit paranoia in the public mind as they may develop a fear of the outdoors.

The Rocky Mountain States have coexisted with mountain lions during and since settlement. If there was a problem with the animal why haven't they eliminated it? Because the humans and the mountain lions have found a way to coexist with little friction and in California there is a ban on mountain lion hunting. California wildlife biologist, Rick Hopkins, makes the argument that "California has the highest human population density and the largest population of mountain lions and yet there have only been thirteen attacks on humans by mountain lions since 1986 and only three resulted in fatalities; during that same time there have been over one hundred humans killed by domestic dogs; and in all of North America there are only one to two documented attacks on humans annually."

Nebraska's Experience

In neighboring Nebraska, the mountain lion had been extirpated and sightings began to occur about the same time as in Iowa; carcasses of killed mountain lions and scat DNA samples that were collected were that of dispersing males. Because of the state's closer proximity to the western states, there were more sightings than in Iowa prompting some action among lawmakers. In 1995, Nebraska legislators voted unanimously to list the mountain lion as a game animal. Legislative Bill 529 gave protection to mountain lion, bear and moose. This designation currently protects the mountain lion with no hunting season. However, farmers and ranchers can legally shoot the animal if it is considered to be threatening livestock. Since this legislation was enacted evidence of a female mountain lion was found in the Pine Ridge area in northwest Nebraska, and in 2006, a female mountain lion and her cubs were camera-trapped in the Pine Ridge area, giving proof to game officials that mountain lions had re-established themselves in the state. Today, "there is an estimate of nineteen mountain lions in the Pine Ridge area and there are still dispersing males throughout the state and their number are hard to collect information for," says Sam Wilson the Furbearer and Carnivore Program Manager of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

There are some differences between Iowa and Nebraska in terms of landscape and population density; however, there are also numerous similarities. Nebraska consists mostly of private land and both states share an agriculturally centered economy. Nebraska has more ranch land and open-grazing livestock which would seem to be easy targets for mountain lions, but the majority of livestock kills are the result of coyotes on smaller livestock such as calves, sheep, goats, and poultry. Western Nebraska is sparsely populated with only twenty-five percent of the state's 1.8 million people living west of Lincoln. Clearly, the legal protection of the animal was the key ingredient to its re-establishment back into Nebraska.

A Challenge for the Future

For the mountain lion to become re-established in Iowa legal action must take place to protect the animal. We must not forget the mountain lion was native to Iowa and other Midwestern and Eastern states and that the animal is simply following a natural dispersal pattern. If mountain lions were to establish a population it may be similar to what Nebraska has experienced. There are some differences between Nebraska and Iowa in terms of landscape and population distribution, but there are some wild parts to Iowa that are thinly populated which could sustain a population.

Mountain lions need large tracts of uninterrupted land to establish a permanent population. The ideal habitat for mountain lions could be on either side of the state along the Missouri and the Mississippi River valleys. Yellow River State Forest in northeast Iowa is the largest state park at 8,000 acres and could sustain several cats. Iowa's Loess Hills in western Iowa would provide enough protected land for mountain lions to gain a foothold and to hopefully hang on. The Iowa DNR reintroduced bison to this area and although the herd is closely managed it is reported to be sustaining. Southern Iowa also contains some areas of habitat that could also be suitable. But humans like the way things are and often resist change. Humans have a drive to dominate the landscape and wildlife and to squeeze out from everything some purpose to fill a need within ourselves, our economy, and society as a whole.

Because of the elusiveness of the animal it is still difficult to know for sure how many there are in Iowa at any one time. Any attempts to study the animal are thwarted by the simple omission from Iowa's Code from laying out the first game laws allowing anybody to shoot the animal without fear of legal action. We are a different people today than in the settlement days. I would like to think we are more intelligent and understanding than our ancestors of the world around us and the impact we have on fragile ecosystems. The return of the mountain lion represents an ecological healing process that is occurring naturally without the meddling hand of man and the mountain lion has every right to be here in this state with us. The restoration of a small part of what our ancestors have lost, and we have never known, is requesting permission to re-enter its natural habitat and co-exist with the rest of us--the "wild" is coming back to the wilderness of Iowa. My hope for the future is that one day I can walk on that small creek, in the shadow of my aunt and uncle's house, and show my children the paw print of a mountain lion alongside the other prints of Iowa's wildlife.

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