Big little cat makes a comeback

CELEBRATING the exploits of frontierswoman Martha Jane Canary, Doris Day sang, “Take me back to the Black Hills, the Black Hills of Dakota”, in the 1950s film Calamity Jane.

The famous mountains, rising from the Great Plains, were home to the Lakota tribe, who were eventually deported to make way for gold prospectors following George Armstrong Custer’s expedition in 1874.

The Mount Rushmore sculptures are a famous landmark in the area. Eighteen metres high, they depict five American presidents. The Black Hills, however, have yet another claim to fame; they are the last stronghold of the cougar. Now, according to a paper published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, this cat is staging a comeback. Carl Nielsen of Southern Illinois University and Michelle La Rue of the University of Minnesota claim that cougars are venturing out of their safe haven.

Lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars are described as ‘big cats’. They have a special type of larynx which enables them to roar. The cougar, the fourth largest cat in the world, can’t roar. The biggest of the ‘small’ cats, it’s more closely related to your household tabby than to the lion.

Weighing the same as an average-sized man, it’s as if the purring pet grew to the size of a person. ! The cougar has another distinction; according to the Guinness Book of Records, it has more names than any other feline. There are over 40 of them, including mountain lion, puma and panther.

Creamy brown all over, like a slim African lioness, this nocturnal ambush predator hunts creatures as small as rabbits and as big as horses. The most widely distributed land mammal in the Western hemisphere, it was found from the Yukon to the southern tip of South America.

Then European colonists arrived. Cougars usually don’t attack people unless they are cornered or their young are threatened, but 53 incidents, including 10 fatalities, were reported during the last century. If confronted by a cougar, experts say; don’t run away or play dead; maintain eye contact, wave your arms, shout and the cat will back off. Not that you are likely to encounter one. “The odds of a sighting are a little more likely than winning the lottery, but not a whole lot,” declares Nielsen.

Nonetheless, people were afraid and livestock were at risk, so cougars were persecuted. They survived only in isolated pockets, the principal haunt being the Black Hills.

There were unconfirmed sightings in unlikely places during the 1980s but few of them could be confirmed. The number of reports exceeded 30 in 2008 so Nielsen and La Rue decided to investigate. Adopting a rigorous forensic approach, they examined statements, carcasses, hair samples, remains of kills, dung, and photographs taken by members of the public.

Of the records examined, 178 where deemed reliable.

Cougars have visited 14 US states and provinces of Canada, although some of the sightings may have been of the same animal. Kansas Michigan and Ontario recorded one cougar each. There were 67 records from Nebraska. A cougar was shot in the outskirts of Chicago.

A farmer in North Dakota came face to face with a female and her three cubs in his barn. Fearing for his livestock, he shot all four. DNA analysis carried out on a road kill in Connecticut proved that the animal had come from the Black Hills, 2,400km away.

Of the carcasses examined, 67% were male. This is consistent with known cougar behaviour; young males disperse when numbers rise in their natal areas. Great travellers, they wander far and wide in search of an alternative place to live. Although these generalists can survive in a wide range of habitats, they prefer forested areas with no people and few roads. Seventy-nine per cent of the reports confirmed by Nielsen and La Rue came from places within 50km of such habitat. The authors conclude that the cougar is re-colonising many of its former haunts. Farmers aren’t pleased. “The voice of the mystic mountain’ called Doris Day back home. They want it to do the same for the cougar.

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