The cougar (the cat, that is) is now the most common apex predator in a third of the U.S.'s lower 48 states. And California now houses more of the animals than any other state.
Reversing a century of decline, America's cougar population — a.k.a. the mountain lion, puma, or panther — is on the rise, with 200 sightings in the Midwest alone since 1990, evidence they are recolonizing and expanding into their historical range. Cougars have lately been spotted all around Los Angeles, with one male actually living in Griffith Park. (Check out this National Geographic video of what it was like for photographer Steve Winter to capture an image of P-22, a specimen tracked by the National Park Service, for the magazine's December issue). Over the last few years, reports have poured in across the U.S., from the Bay Area, the Dakotas, and the Midwest to Washington, D.C., and Milford, Connecticut, where a 140-pound male was hit by an SUV on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in 2011.
How did the cougar comeback happen? By the early 1900s, the animals that had survived hunters, trappers, and U.S. government policy to eradicate predators had been pushed largely to the West's mountainous wildlands. But due to federal regulations that were put in place in the 1970s to manage hunting and prohibit poisoning, cougars now have a confirmed presence in many populated regions, including L.A., the second-largest urban area in the U.S. (a series of fatal and nonfatal attacks in California have only made things more complicated for human-cougar relations).
Cougars have attacked humans fewer than 150 times in the U.S. and Canada over the past 120 years, writes Douglas Chadwick in National Geographic. But the more telling statistic, he says, is that "at least a third of the verified cougar attacks have taken place over the past two decades."
According to Chadwick, it's a simple equation: "More cougars plus more people in the countryside add up to more potential for conflict." As our urban areas continue to expand outward, growing numbers of cougars approach populated areas, the two are meeting with more frequency. It's a signal moment, because right now cougar policy is quite literally all over the map: you can shoot them in Texas (they're classified as "varmints") though not in California. But wildlife biologists are starting to agree on policy recently implemented by Washington State, which matches hunting caps to the cougar's natural rate of increase. Hunting cougars to excess, it turns out, may encourage survivors to roam outside their habitat ... and closer to ours.