The large North American cat known as the cougar, puma, or mountain lion is notoriously elusive, haunting the hills of Hollywood. Though they once ruled the American Midwest, populations have since plummited. But their stealth may be helping to bring them back, allowing them to dominate the region within a few decades, reports Maggie Ryan Sandford for National Geographic.
The prediction comes from a study recently published in the journal Ecological Modeling. To figure out what the future might hold for the species—since tracking the wily creatures is far from easy—a team of scientists gathered known information about cougars, like how far females typically migrate, what kind of habitats the big cats prefer, and how they interact with other large predators.
Cougars already live in many western states, preferring rugged mountainous terrain. They used to roam across most of the U.S. and Canada, but when settlers arrived, cougar populations declined. Yet in the past two decades, an increasing number of sightings in the plains, Midwest and even occasionally in the Northeast have shown a possible rebound for the population. A press release from the University of Minnesota list the number of those sightings as more than 800 since 1990.
The team’s new model suggests cougars could move into Arkansas and Missouri, as well as establish more robust populations in the Dakotas and Nebraska, Sandford reports. That migration could take just 25 years.
“It will be interesting to see how the ecosystem changes––if at all––if the cougars come back," study co-author Michelle LaRue, a conservation biologist at the University of Minnesota, tells National Geographic.
LaRue also hopes that the work will put people’s mind at rest about whether cougars are dangerous. "You’re far more likely to be attacked by your neighbor’s dog than a big cat," she says.
Though part of that disparity may be differing population sizes, people and cougars do coexist. It took decades for researchers to confirm that the eastern cougar went extinct in the 1930s. It could take just as long to figure out exactly when the cougars return.