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A new study confirms what scientists have suspected: The country is seeing a
resurgence of cougars (no, not Demi Moore and Courteney Cox, but the actual wild
cat kind) throughout parts of the Midwest.
It's good news for a species that has been in decline for more than 100 years — a population drop that has left a noticeable gap in the food chain.
If not for their low numbers, “cougars would be top carnivores in Midwestern ecosystems, affecting prey species populations,” says Clay Nielsen, co-author of the study and an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Scientists theorize that the spurt in cougar numbers in the Midwest is the result of a dispersal pattern over time — young cats are biologically programmed to move out on their own, away from densely populated areas, like the Black Hills in South Dakota.
In the last century, the under-population of the big cats has led to an overpopulation of white-tailed deer — cougars’ main prey. This uptick in cougar numbers could help put the ecosystem back in balance.
Their reappearance could also stir up trouble.
The conclusions of the study, which spanned two decades, have scientists pondering new questions — like whether Midwesterners can learn to coexist peacefully with an influx of the 200-pound carnivores.
“Public and wildlife managers may need to deal with increasing cougar populations in the near future if recolonization continues,” Nielsen says. “How will we all get along — or will we?”
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