While taking a late summer walk on the mile-long dirt road alongside our western Iowa farm several years ago, Marilyn noticed large paw prints in the soft dust. When she completed her energetic exercise, she returned home for a camera, took some photos and searched the internet for pictures of mountain lion tracks.

Sure enough, they matched. When I got home from my office, my wife and I drove together to the paw print site. The cougar’s tracks were evenly spaced for several hundred feet.  Deer tracks merged onto the road from the ditch.  

Gradually the deer tracks became long strides and the cat’s tracks also lengthened until its bounds were a dozen feet apart.  The deer and mountain lion tracks both steered off the road into a nearby cornfield toward an unknown outcome.

In 2001 a male mountain lion was hit and killed by a vehicle on Highway 59 on the west side of Harlan, Iowa, our address.  Are these events involving the big cats anomalies or common occurrences these days?

Among the many myths about living in rural places is that mountain lions are being released by federal and/or state wildlife agencies to reduce the deer population.  The felines are touted as the bane of farmers because they are known to sometimes kill livestock; occasionally they also attack pets and humans.

According to an article by Shane Griffin in the latest issue of the Wapsipinicon Almanac, breeding populations of cougars, catamounts, pumas, or panthers—as they are variously called, have slowly expanded their range recently from the western US into parts of their former range where they were exterminated many years ago.

Young male mountain lions may migrate hundreds of miles, even across rivers by swimming or taking a highway bridge, in search of suitable territories and mates when they are forced out of their home territories by dominant males.  DNA tests confirmed a 140 pound male cat killed in Connecticut in 2011 matched the DNA of mountain lions in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 1,500 miles away.

Invariably, only toms are killed by hunters, farmers or motor vehicles in places like Iowa and Missouri, where mountain lions have not been native for decades.  Females’ territories may overlap as long as there is sufficient food, and they usually expand only into adjacent regions as their numbers increase beyond the carrying capacity of their original territories, and not Iowa and Missouri yet.

What do mountain lions eat?  Documented evidence indicates the cougars survive mostly on deer and small animals such as rabbits and birds, but around metropolitan areas they may prey on pet or feral house cats, dogs, birds and occasionally they rely on unconsumed pet food left in the back yard.

Will the animals harm people?  The “List of Confirmed Cougar Attacks in the United States and Canada 2001-2010 (www.cougarinfo.org/attacks3.htm) indicates that less than one person per year is killed by a mountain lion in the US and Canada but several people are injured each year.

Often the cat attacks are near or in suburban areas where houses have been built recently. Expansion of people into catamount territories often drives out their usual prey and the big cats have to find whatever is available for food.

Furthermore, cats that attack humans often are elderly or weakened by injury or illness and in need of food.  Usually reclusive and nocturnal, these mountain lions may attack persons during the daytime.

The persons whom the animals attack are frequently engaged in physical activities such as running, which triggers predatory behaviors.  The big cats are doing what comes naturally—or in these cases—what they need to do to survive in crowded environments.

Several states and provinces have declared the animal a protected species and some allow regulated mountain lion hunting.  How that happens can be interesting.  

A few years ago I camped at "The Pines,” a picturesque conglomeration of 1920s’ cabins at Long Pine, Nebraska and next to Pine Creek, a good fishing stream.  While fly-fishing the next morning, I noticed cat prints larger than a bobcat’s in the moist sand next to the stream.

The next day while providing training to University of Nebraska Extension personnel at their annual conference I mentioned my discovery.  A conference attendee said, “Officially, we didn’t used to have mountain lions, even though ranchers and rural postal delivery persons said they saw the cats regularly.”  

“Then a mailman hit and killed one with his vehicle and took it to the Nebraska Park and Game Commission.  The next year the cats were a protected species!”

Marilyn still takes walks on the dirt road by our farm.  She carries a water bottle.  

She says laughingly when she leaves the house for her hike, “If I don’t return in an hour, come looking for me.  Look for my blue water bottle and start your search from there, because probably the mountain lion won’t carry me too far.”

Dr. Rosmann lives near Harlan, Iowa.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

–by Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.

Share your thoughts. Email Dr. Rosmann at [email protected], or visit his website at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.  You can call him at his office in Harlan, Iowa at 712-235-6100.