Cougars are again spreading across the Midwest a century after the generally reclusive predators were hunted to near-extinction, according to a new study in the Journal of Wildlife Management. The study showed 178 cougar confirmations in the Midwest between 1990 and 2008—up significantly from sightings before 1990, when there were only a couple. "We (now) know there are a heck of a lot more cougars running around the Midwest than in 1990," says a wildlife ecologist who co-authored the report. "For those worried about livestock degradations, there's going to be division in the ranks in the Midwest."
Scientists long had suspected that cougars were migrating from the West or South Dakota's Black Hills mountain range, where abundant populations of the long-tailed cats have spurred a yearly hunting season since 2005. Researchers theorize cougars are inhabiting the Midwest again following a "stepping stone" dispersal pattern—moving out of a dense population, stopping at the closest available habitat, and examining it for mates and prey before moving on. Not everybody's surprised by the resurgence though: "They're so thick out here, it's unbelievable," says a North Dakota rancher who found a mom and three cubs in a barn. He blames cougars for "wiping out" the deer population. (Read more cougar stories.)