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U of M researcher: Mountain lions headed back to middle of U.S.

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A University of Minnesota researcher says mountain lions – also known as cougars – are heading back to the middle of the United States.

The study co-authored by the U of M's Michelle LaRue is the first large-scale look ahead at the population viability of cougars, the university says.

And while we shouldn't expect to see many of them prowling Minnesota, the study says cougars are likely to return to Nebraska, Missouri, and Arkansas within the next 25 years.

The study by LaRue and co-author Clayton K. Nielsen of Southern Illinois University is being published in the journal Ecological Modeling (find more on it here).

Biologists say cougars once had one of the widest ranges on earth, spreading from coast to coast and from Canada to the tip of South America. But as humans spread across the Americas, cougars receded.

LaRue says as the species bounces back, human acceptance and attitudes toward the big cats becomes more important, adding "...we feel that our study could be an important tool for conservation of this species and education about a large carnivore that can sometimes incite fear.”

Seen one?

LaRue is also executive director of the Cougar Network, which has plenty of background on the cats and a map of confirmed sightings.

The map shows Minnesota with 32 sightings, including one in Douglas County this past May. The Black Hills of South Dakota are the nearest area where breeding populations are known to be living.

Today's cats are officially known as the North American Cougar. A sub-species called the Eastern Cougar was declared extinct by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011.

In an article on the cougar's comeback this week, National Geographic noted that a century ago the whitetail deer was close to extinction. But conservation and controls on hunting have helped boost its population from 300,000 in the 1930s to about 30 million today.

(Although there numbers will be a little lower after Minnesota hunters get a shot at them this weekend.)

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