Mountain lions move east, breeding fear
By BLAINE HARDEN
The Washington Post
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.
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 across the Midwest. It's 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 the cats' eastward movement.
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.
State game officials say many Iowans are 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 statewide, farmers have announced that they no longer go out unarmed at night to tend livestock.
"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 rumors across the Midwest that state game agencies, sometimes using black helicopters, are secretly planting mountain lions in farm country. Andrews, the state's leading expert on mountain lions, began his slide presentation in Marshalltown by attacking the rumors head-on, saying, "We did not, we have not and we will not release mountain lions in Iowa."
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, in state documents, also denies involvement in mountain lion reintroductions.
The animal's 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.
First, there are probably more mountain lions in the continental United States now than before European settlement (more than 31,000, by one recent estimate). The resurgence began in the 1960s, when several Western states, where mountain lion populations had been reduced but never wiped out, changed the cats' legal status from varmint to big game, with limited or no hunting.
Second, there are more white-tailed deer in the United States than before European settlement (estimates now range from 20 million to 33 million), with huge and increasingly unhunted populations in rural and suburban areas east of the Mississippi. The regrowth of Eastern forests offers cover for deer, and succulent suburban shrubbery offers year-round food.
Young male mountain lions, called "dispersers" by scientists, can travel 50 to 100 miles in a night. moving along wooded river corridors. They swim well; several apparently have crossed the Mississippi. One radio-collared male from South Dakota was hit by a train this summer near the Kansas-Oklahoma border, having traveled an estimated 950 miles.
The inexorable result will be increasing conflict between cats and people, according to Paul Beier, a professor of wildlife ecology at Northern Arizona University and an authority on mountain lion interaction with human beings.
John - there have been a couple hit by cars just north of Kansas City, I think they were trying to hitch a ride to Potosi