Mountain Lion Range Expansion

lion on trail cam

This trail camera photo may be a bit blurry, but it shows the mountain lion clearly enough. Note my treestand in the upper right corner.

Retrieving a trail camera card is a bit like Christmas. There are gifts there, just waiting to be opened and shown to the world for the first time. So, when I looked over images from a camera I had placed in a favorite elk hunting area, I was delighted to find that among the images of deer and elk there was a single image of a night-prowling cougar. As luck would have it, last year at a different location in Island Park, I forgot to retrieve a camera. When I finally picked it up this spring, I found yet another image of a mountain lion, this one in winter.

Cougars, a.k.a., mountain lions, have never been common in Island Park, but it seems that every year there are more reports of them. That is the same story across virtually all of Idaho and throughout all western states. In fact, mountain lions are the most widespread mammal in the Americas, populating habitats from the Yukon to the tip of South America. They have been reported in every South American country as well.

In the Continental United States, mountain lions once ranged from shore to shore. With persistent persecution, the eastern subspecies was annihilated over 100 years ago and the Florida panther, a second subspecies, was almost lost as well and remains endangered to this day. Otherwise, lions were restricted to the western states.

But the lions are fighting back. For at least 20 years, there have been reports of lions slowly moving east. Now, it really isn’t unusual for males of many species to make long treks searching for a new home. So, for range expansion, you have to have more than just males with a wanderlust. Breeding pairs are what establish new boundaries. So, have these sightings been just the population drifters or is there some range expansion?

The answer to both questions is yes. It seems that the males are leading the charge. In 2011, a male lion was killed by a car in Connecticut. Genetic analysis linked this animal with the population in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He had left a genetic trail that revealed that he had traveled throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, then went international, spending time in southern Ontario before moving through New York to Connecticut.

Female lions typically don’t stray far from their natal areas. However, some must be getting the urge because there have been three populations documented in Nebraska in the past 20 years. Oklahoma has had 77 confirmed sightings from 2002 through December 2023. Most of these are trail camera sightings so sex is undetermined, but several “in hand” animals were females. Of particular interest is that the source populations for animals actually handled in Oklahoma were in three different states—Colorado, South Dakota, and Nebraska. As of 2023, Missouri has had 117 confirmed sightings and since 2010, sightings in Indiana have increased dramatically. Lions are on the move.

It is interesting that elk are getting a big boost from conservation organizations to re-populate their original eastern ranges. You can find elk in Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia, West Virginia, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Oklahoma and more. All these states now have resident elk populations courtesy largely to efforts by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Mountain lions, on the other hand, get a lukewarm welcome when they show up unannounced and on their own. This likely stems from the persistent view of lions and all other predators as “bloodthirsty” killers, savagers of children and livestock and decimators of deer herds, none of which is true.

Mountain lions, while not an animal to mess with, have a reasonable history with humans. There are 29 recorded human fatalities and 171 nonfatal attacks from 1890-2017, 127 years. Serious yes, but compared to Man’s Best Friend, they are kitty cats. Annually, abut 4.5 million Americans are attacked by dogs, with 20-30 fatalities (granted, there are lots more dogs than mountain lions and they live next to us all the time). If those numbers held true over time, then the 127-year history of lion attacks would yield from 2,540 to 3,810 fatalities from domestic dogs. Among senior citizens, falls account for 32,000 deaths annually, so potential lion attacks just shouldn’t be the thing we focus on.

Scientists who are tracking the mountain lion expansion estimate that lions will have established populations all the way to the east coast within 20-25 years if left alone. That is good news as there are actually some good ecological arguments why Easterners should welcome mountain lions with open arms. I’ll discuss them next time.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho