A recent article in the Journal of Wildlife Management documented the expansion of cougars — also called mountain lions, pumas or panthers - into midwestern North America where they have been absent since being exterminated in the early 1900s. Earlier articles in other scientific journals document the recent presence of cougars in eastern and northern Canada where they have been absent or seldom seen. I bring these reports to the reader’s attention to emphasize that sporadic reports of cougars on the Kenai Peninsula, while difficult for many to believe, are not unique.
My interest in cougars began in the late 1960s. At that time, my advisor for my doctoral research on bobcat ecology and social behavior was Dr. Maurice Hornocker at the University of Idaho, the first to conduct a long-term study of free-roaming wild cougars in the Rocky Mountains of central Idaho. He is recognized as a leading authority of cougars. I was fortunate to spend some time in his remote study area with a colleague of mine who was studying these same wild cougars using what was then the new technique of radio telemetry. I also was able to watch at close range a cougar raised from a kitten for behavioral studies in a large outdoor facility. I subsequently observed tracks of cougars in the snow when they periodically appeared in my bobcat study area in southeastern Idaho and later in a wolverine study area in northwestern Montana.
I first wrote a Refuge Notebook article on the reported observations of cougars on the Kenai Peninsula over ten years ago (2002). The article was repeated in 2005, shortly after another cougar was sighted near Homer. Such reports periodically continue. For example, in the fall of 2011, I talked to a person in Cooper Landing who reported a cougar crossing the road south of Kenai Lake. This person got a brief but good look at it, describing its size and characteristic low-carrying and up-turned-at-the-tip, long tail.
In 2008, I talked to a person who got a good look at one walking along the Sterling Highway near the west end of Skilak Loop. I later talked to a long-term resident and friend, well-versed in the area’s natural history and familiar with other large mammals on the Peninsula, who saw one cross the Sterling Highway near the east end of Skilak Loop. Also, as described in another recent newspaper article (August 2012), attempts are now being made to obtain an image of one of these highly elusive and rare visitors using remote cameras on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The article on the expansion of cougars into midwestern North America was based on 178 confirmed records of cougars in 14 states and two Canadian provinces during 1990-2008. Confirmation was based on carcasses (56), tracks (40), camera images (37), scats (10), the actual animal captured (8), video recordings (8), and other evidence (19). The study’s findings were that confirmations of cougars increased through time with the most confirmations during the last year of the study; that Nebraska had the most confirmations (67) and Michigan, Kansas, and Ontario the fewest (1 each); and that 76 percent of the carcasses were male. The authors concluded that cougars are likely colonizing and expanding their range in the Midwest and, further, that they are likely coming from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
By coincidence, I happened to live in the rugged Pine Ridge area of northwestern Nebraska in mid-1960s when cougars were then absent. Today it supports a breeding population of cougars. I am also familiar with the Black Hills area of South Dakota having visited relatives there since the 1970s. Cougars were extirpated there by the early 1900s but sporadic reports began in the 1970s, an estimated 10-15 cougars inhabited the area by 1986 and, by the early 2000s, 130-150 cougars were estimated to be breeding in the Black Hills.
Cougars are capable of moving long distances. A male from the Black Hills recently traveled over 1,740 miles through at least Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York before it was struck by a vehicle in Connecticut. Another male from there traveled at least 640 miles into Oklahoma. A female cougar tagged in Utah traveled 805 miles to Colorado, the longest distance recorded for a female cougar.
Cougars do seem to be moving further northward in Canada. In November 2000, the first confirmed cougar in the Yukon Territory, a dead emaciated young male, was found near Watson Lake, although unconfirmed reports date back to 1944. In the Northwest Territories and Woods Buffalo National Park (partially in northern Alberta), at least 21 individual occurrences of cougars were documented between 1983 and 2000. The northernmost observations were at Nahanni National Park and on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake.
Although cougars have been reported in other areas of Alaska besides the Kenai Peninsula, there are only two documented accounts of cougars killed in Alaska, both from the southeastern panhandle: one taken by a wolf trapper on South Kupreanof Island in 1998 and another shot near Wrangell in 1989.
In summary, wildlife biologists have documented that cougars are recolonizing parts of North America, partially in response to the legal protection they have been given and probably because populations of white-tailed deer, one of their principal prey species, is also expanding northward and are at high levels in many places. It is likely that those periodically reported on the Kenai Peninsula, like the majority documented elsewhere, are dispersing young males that eventually find their way back off the peninsula, or possibly remain and die here. But eventually – sometime in the distant future – perhaps a population will also become established here.
Ted Bailey is a retired Kenai National Wildlife Refuge wildlife biologist who has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for over 36 years. He maintains a keen interest in the Kenai Peninsula’s wildlife and natural history. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.