Stories from the Field: Could we restore our American Serengeti?
Puma concolor: a.k.a. cougar, panther, puma, Indian devil, catamount, mountain lion. The mountain lions are coming back, down from the mountainous West, through the foothills of the Great Plains, pushing east, re-colonizing lost lands. They come by night, following the riparian corridors of the great river of the West—the Missouri—and all her tributaries.
Following the Yellowstone, Tongue, Powder, and Little Missouri rivers into North Dakota, following the Grand, Belle Fourche, Cheyenne, James, and Big Sioux through South Dakota, following the Niobrara, Loup, and Platte through Nebraska, following the Republican, Smoky Hill, Arkansas, and Neosho through Kansas, following the Canadian, and the Red through Oklahoma and Texas.
Into the Midwest, the great wooded idylls of Missouri and Minnesota—overripe with deer. Ironically, it is the success of the predator eradication efforts of the 19th century (see also Grizzly Bear and Wolf, systematic extirpation of)that is bringing the mountain lion back. As went the theory, without the predators the “game” population did in fact explode, and now it is this abundance of deer—fat, lazy deer—that beckons the cat down from the mountains with the promise of an easy dinner. These swollen herds of whitetails lure the mountain lion back east.
Through the flat lands of Iowa and Kansas, they creep from tree to tree, copse to copse. These cats are adapting to sparse cover. They are piecing together oases of undeveloped land into territories.
The dispersers are primarily males—all the young dudes setting out for new territory, epic odysseys in search of a home. A mountain lion radio-collared in 2003 travelled nearly 700 miles from his home in the Black Hills of South Dakota before being killed by a train in Oklahoma. He sauntered west into Wyoming and then turned south through Nebraska, skirting Omaha, parsing Kansas, finally arriving in the Oklahoma panhandle.
He came from one of the two remaining indigenous pockets of the great cats east of the Rockies—the mountain lion of the western Dakotas, and the beleaguered Florida panther, sulking sullenly in his swampy tip of the Everglades.
It is the hardy band of indigenous Black Hills mountain lions who have been so impressively dispersing themselves—east into Minnesota and Iowa, south through Nebraska, Kansas, into Oklahoma, claws stretching to meet up with their kin in the native populations of West Texas.
The great American lion covered every inch of this country in 1800—from Maine to the coastal ranges of southern California, from the Everglades to Puget Sound. But we banished them from the East as we chewed across the land like locusts. We exiled them to the furthest reaches—but fortunately for the mountain lions, they are at home in the craggy crevices of the Mountain West. They retreated into the Rockies like cat insurgents, re-grouping to fight another day.
I am dreaming of mountain lions because they are a success story—they are re-colonizing America without a re-introduction plan, without government protection. They are an unstoppable force. We still roadblock their progress with car, train, bullet, trap, and poison, but we can’t prevent their inevitable spread. Like spring snowmelt carving through winter’s remains, the mountain lion will find his way.
The urban density of the East—particularly the I-95 corridor—is the natural ally of our great open spaces. Unfortunately, while the new-urban developments of our greener angels speak to the need for preserving open spaces, they are primarily Astroturf Edens—open fields and mini-forests with nature cast out save for the songbirds and squirrels.
Why is there such antipathy towards our great predators?What kind of person carries such an irrational, medieval hatred for the Mountain Lion, the Wolf, the Grizzly Bear? Because this animus is not just about money. In the West the members of this great Predator Triumvirate populate our public lands. If you want the privilege of grazing your cattle or sheep on these lands, occasional predation is not an unreasonable tax. But in the parlance of the stockmen, our predators are not rightful heirs to the land they lived on when we were but a dream in the eyes of the Conquistadors—but rather are a pestilence, a scourge they deem as an alien threat to their ponderous munching herds of non-native cattle and sheep.
My uncle has a stuffed mountain lion in his living room. This is how it ended up there: a pack of dogs chased this cat for three hours until it finally climbed a tree in exhaustion. The hunting party—leisurely tracking the radio-collared dogs—arrived in their pickup truck and my uncle shot it out of the tree with a .45 in one hand and a beer in the other.
For what? For vanity.
I have no issue with the humane harvesting of animals for food. But it is time to kill the Hemingway myth, time to put an end to the wanton destruction of our predators for the satiation of our basest ego.
Could we restore our American Serengeti? Let us halt our suburban expansion. Let us draw a moat of open land around our cities, a barrier to all further development.
As the Great Plains depopulates, as small towns disappear and the people of the prairie migrate to Helena, Denver, Omaha—might we visualize the great buffalo herds running once again from the Texas panhandle to the Canadian interior? Starting just north of Amarillo there would only be four interstate highways to cross—one each in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. The potential disruption of a couple hundred buffalo charging across the concrete would be minimal, as these open stretches of highway are barely more peopled now than they were as wagon-rut trails 150 years ago.
I know I am not the only one whose heart swells with the post-apocalyptic scenes of 12 Monkeys or I am Legend: the image of lions hunting zebras in Manhattan. Or perhaps more reasonably—and less apocalyptically for we humans—the thought of the mountain lion once again roaming the country from coast to coast, corner to corner.
But first we have to get these cats safely across the Mississippi River. Very few have been sighted east of the great water highway. For every live sighting—every hint of the mountain lion’s presence in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky or Tennessee—there are multiple carcasses found, frequently on railroad bridges crossing the watery expanse.
Not that Puma concolor won’t swim. They are not water lovers like tigers, but they will jump in when no other opportunity presents itself. Florida Panther 62—a radio-collared refugee from the cramped confines of the Everglades—swam 160 feet across the Caloosahatchee River on his way north to new territory in central Florida. But the mighty Mississippi—even at her most tranquil stretches through Louisiana—is still a river too wide.
Adventurous, border-hopping Canadian lions are already working their way south through Maine and Michigan—but not fast enough. We could wait patiently for the great eastern migration to swell—
—or we could help it along ourselves.
Just as I yearned during my first year of college to spike trees rather than study my forest management coursework, I imagine getting more radically proactive. Maybe just kidnap a couple mountain lions and drive them across the river. We definitely need breeding females, who by their nature don’t wander as far from their home territories. All the wandering dudes of the West won’t lead to a viable population without females to breed with. For now the lonely male dispersers aimlessly stalk their new territories like teenage boys—charged up and ready to mate, but too fearful of territorial fathers to head back home.
So, couldn’t we cart a mature mating pair from Colorado or West Texas, drive across the Mississippi at Memphis, drive up into the Appalachians, maybe into the Smoky Mountains? The mountain lions will probably make it back there on their own. But just this once, couldn’t we be the collaborator instead of the impediment?
Kirk Wisland is a graduate of the University of Arizona MFA program, and a proud Minnesotan who gleefully tracks the news of every Puma concolor sighting in his home state.