Thursday, January 24, 2008

Listening for Cougar

Perched among the thick brambles of a ridge thicket, taut musculature carved from steel , senses evolved to razor precision by untold numbers of hunts down through the generations. Potential energy uncoils to kinetic in a maelstrom of golden flash, death instruments slice fluidly into the vulnerable throat of the ungulate, buckling under the flurried attack, an instantaneous triumph of survival.

A male mountain lion takes down a fattened doe along a bluff near the Mississippi River valley.

Rumors are in the air--the big cats are back on the former prairies. Internet rumors hint of a sighting near Sandwich, IL, a local newspaper column documents sightings near Galesburg and Fairview. The body of dead mountain was confirmed found near New Boston, IL in 2004. Is cougar back in the midwest? All indications would say no.

In a new collection of essays, "Listening to Cougar," edited by Mark Bekoff, writers, naturalists, photographers and academics present a sort of state of the mountain lion, a barometer of the state of what may be the single largest symbol of the wilderness west. These essays offer a portrait of an elusive, secretive animal who has adapted to our presence in their habitat and resisted extirpation against numerous costs.

Most of the other big mammals of the west are long gone. Pumas have grown increasingly adaptable, mobile and aware of human movement throughout their once open lands. Habitat is shrinking, and yet cougars find solace and territory in those yet unsettled wildest canyons and few rugged outposts that remain in the desert southwest.

Where they can't evade the hunter, the contractor, or the angry rancher the cougar will expand territory in search of new range, into the Dakotas, even a few males straying into Missouri.

I'm not convinced we will see mountain lions in this part of the country. Despite our profusion of deer, easy and palatable prey for a cougar, my feeling is that we simply don't have the scope of habitat required for the animals to go undetected and survive while establishing breeding range.

I excerpt this brief passage from the essay entitled, "A Short, Unnatural History":

"From time to time, the media reports that intermittent pumas scatter to Midwestern states. The Great Plains, however, act as a Great Puma Barricade. While dispersing, pumas require cover such as trees or brush for travel and for hunting. Waterways such as the Platte River offer pumas travel corridors to the east, but the difficulty of establishing breeding populations in the Midwest comes from pumas' own dispersal tendencies. Young males typically travel further from the natal area then their sisters while looking to establish a home range. Also, males may have difficulties finding females in the Midwest, and thus establishing resident breeding populations may take some years."

While the revival of bobcat populations in Illinois lend some encouragement to a re-establishment of a more biologically diverse state, the reality probably suggests that even if the occasional big cat is sighted, its presence will be a certain short-lived anomaly.

Still, those of us with some optimism about the future of our immediate environments will keep an ear to the wind, always listening for cougar.

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