Mountain lions used to roam most of the mainland United States.
Their enormous range earned them many names — puma, painter, catamount, cougar — and made them the most widely distributed mammal in North America.
The mountain lion was nearly lost to American memory in the early 1900s, when populations were devastated by hunting and a shortage of prey.
But now, roughly a century later, mountain lions are recolonizing in the Midwest, researchers say.
In the last decade, reports of confirmed sightings in Missouri and Kansas have increased. Just in May, Missouri troopers euthanized a male mountain lion in Laclede County after it had been struck on Interstate 44.
Still, mountain lions don’t appear to be reproducing in either state, which makes a big difference both to conservationists and the public.
For now, they’re simply visitors from the West. And they’re almost exclusively male.
“It would be a long shot for a female to wander this far,” said Matt Peek, research biologist at the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
And getting her to stay? Well, that’s a whole other beast.
DNA samples collected from animals in both states lead back to established populations in the Black Hills, Badlands and northwestern Nebraska.
The Midwest rebound, experts say, is a result of modern management and conservation.
In Missouri, mountain lions remain protected under the Wildlife Code, which prohibits hunting but allows the killing of an animal threatening life or property. A similar code applies in Kansas.
But the number of sightings is unequal across the state line: Missouri has more than 50 confirmed sightings since 1994, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Kansas reports 10 for the same period.
Peek said the difference can be explained by the roaming mountain lions’ route.
“We know that a lot of lions have dispersed from the Black Hills,” Peek said. “They’re more likely to come across Nebraska from west to east following the river, which leads them to Missouri.”
Peek said that while Kansas’ prey population may support mountain lions, the landscape is less than prime.
“They need wide open spaces and low human density,” Peek said. “In the places where the land might be right, there would be too many people.”
Jeff Beringer, resource scientist at the Missouri Department of Conservation, said that Missouri’s 2.9 million acres of forested ground and abundant supply of raccoons, possums and armadillos make for a good habitat.
But even in Missouri, there is no evidence of breeding — only an influx of transient males from the West.
The Missouri department’s mountain lion response team has only identified one female, killed in 1994.
“We kind of put an asterisk by that one,” Beringer said.
Clay Nielsen, director of scientific research for the Cougar Network, a nonprofit research group, said male mountain lions disperse to avoid other young males and reduce the likelihood of inbreeding.
In fact, in 2011 a male lion from the Black Hills traveled more than 1,800 miles through Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York before being killed by a vehicle in Connecticut.
Nielsen said females typically move less often and shorter distances.
“It’s in their nature to stay close to their mother,” he said. “And it’s the best strategy because they know the resources are best in their area.”
Currently, there are three reproducing populations in the Midwest, including in Nebraska.
While the mountain lion’s comeback is considered a success among conservationists, it’s also a source of concern — they are, after all, predators.
Nielsen said that many western states still allow hunting.
Even in Nebraska, where the reproducing population appeared in the mid-2000s, mountain lions are a game animal.
Sam Wilson, an animal program manager at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said there won’t be an open season this year because there was a higher number of lion deaths in 2014.
Beringer reserves an open season in Missouri for the far future.
Peek, with the Kansas department, thinks state residents would have a low tolerance for growing populations.
Although a survey of the midwestern states shows the public is generally supportive of cougar presence in the region, Nielsen said there is some lingering fear about the animal.
“Cougar attacks are very, very rare,” Nielsen said. “Still, livestock is hugely important in the Midwest. And the minute there’s reproduction happening, those positive attitudes may change.”
There are no confirmed cases of mountain lion attack on livestock, pets or people in Kansas or Missouri.
Confirmed mountain lion reports in Missouri
Confirmed reports in Kansas