The Missouri Ozarks possess everything cougars need, except for an easy way to find a mate, according to a recently completed two-year study.
Cougars, also called mountain lions or pumas, roamed the Kansas City region's prairies and forests before pioneer guns and habitat changes in the 1800s wiped them out. But wildlife watchers wonder whether a repopulating of the Midwest is under way.
A cougar was shot by police April 14 in north Chicago, in a case similar to a 2002 cougar shooting in Kansas City, North. Meanwhile, Kansas authorities are investigating the first confirmed wild cougar killed in more than 100 years.
Biologists say cougars have plenty of food and woodland habitat in the Ozarks for establishing a reproducing population. The catch is that most cougars wandering in are young males looking for territories.
"We believe there are 2 million or more acres of Missouri habitat suitable for mountain lions," said Rex Martensen, a field programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The prime cougar habitat in nine states recently was mapped by wildlife ecologist Clay Nielsen of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Satellite surveys of terrain and natural growth were matched with maps showing human population density. Nielsen found that 19 percent of Arkansas, 16 percent of Missouri and 3.6 percent of Kansas land was good cougar habitat. Missouri's best cougar country is the hilly Ozark woodlands.
Kansas and Nebraska border established cougar country and have river corridors the cats can use to trek into the Midwest.
Kansas wildlife officials are investigating a cougar shot last November near Medicine Lodge. "Our suspicion is that it was wild," said Matt Peek, furbearer biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Killing cougars is not legal in Missouri and Kansas, but landowners can shoot them to protect life and property.
Missouri has confirmed 10 mountain lions since 1994. Rumors and reported sightings are far more numerous. But biological evidence so far shows no signs of a reproducing population, Martensen said.
"I don't know if there will ever be tolerance by people for large predators in the Midwest," Nielsen said. "But these animals have shown they are more adaptable than anyone ... would have guessed."