The Return of the Great Plains Puma

By Johnson, Kirk | Endangered Species Update, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Return of the Great Plains Puma


Johnson, Kirk, Endangered Species Update


Abstract

With the advent of European settlement over a century ago, the northern Great Plains became the site of extremely rapid landscape change. Most large mammals, including the wapiti or elk (Cervus elephas), bison (Bison bison), wolf (Canis lupus), puma (Puma concolor), grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilus), and black bear (Ursus americanus), were almost completely extirpated from wooded "island-like" habitats such as the Black Hills, the Pine Ridge Escarpment, and also from the mixed-grass prairies. Pumas likely persisted in very low densities within the Black Hills, which now constitutes the core breeding and dispersal ecoregion into adjacent biotically similar environments, including the Pine Ridge Escarpment, the Rawhide Buttes, and the Wildcat Hills. Limiting factors on puma numbers include fluctuating white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) populations, and human and road densities. Rural landowners within the Greater Black Hills ecosystem may increasingly face the dilemma of balancing economic interests with federal and state laws designed to protect and reestablish these native carnivores. How farmers and ranchers resolve these land use issues has implications for other Great Plains states where carnivore dispersion is also taking place. If the Black Hills, the core habitat for the Great Plains puma can be preserved, along with riparian patch and peninsula corridors to adjacent forested buttes, the puma will once again take its place as a dominant carnivore in the Great Plains.

Habitats, history, and limiting factors of the plains puma

Since European settlement commenced over one hundred and thirty years ago, the northern Great Plains has witnessed the extirpation of nearly all large mammalian carnivores, including the gray wolf (Canis lupus), the black bear (Ursus americanus) the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilus), and the puma (Puma concolor). By 1900, only a few individuals of Puma concolor and Canis lupus hung on in remote ecologically distinct forested "island" habitats.

At the present time these habitats in a "sea" of agriculture are proving to be natural recovery zones for residual populations of pumas, also called mountain lions, cougars, or panthers. Such a natural recovery balanced with essential economic interests may prove to be a model for other Great Plains states facing similar issues. One such island habitat is the Greater Black Hills Ecosystem. The Black Hills proper of southwestern South Dakota and eastern Wyoming rise over 2,300 meters and extend across 10,000 square kilometers, with similar biotic communities lying adjacent to these mountains. Geologically speaking, the Black Hills is an eroded semi-circular "geologic dome" structure. Ecologically speaking, several thousand square kilometers of similar habitat ring the Black Hills.

Three such hilly ecosystems, the Rawhide Buttes of eastern Wyoming, along with the Wildcat Hills and the Pine Ridge Escarpment of western Nebraska, lie south and southwest of the Black Hills (see Figure 1). The Wildcat Hills run in a northwest-southwest track south of Scottsbluff, with peaks reaching 1,600 meters. The Pine Ridge is a range of bluffs and buttes rising to nearly 1,600 meters, and stretches in a ragged "boomerang-shaped" arc approximately 166 kilometers from the South Dakota border north of Chadron, Nebraska, and west just past the Wyoming border. This rugged pine-covered landscape with white cliffs is thirty-three kilometers wide in places (Dawes County Travel Board). 19,240 hectares of this woodland is included within the Nebraska National Forest, covered with mature stands of ponderosa pine (pinus ponderosa) along the ridges with deciduous forests of cottonwood (Populus angustifolia), green ash (Fraxinus sp.), box elder (Acer negundo), and willow (Salix sp.)in the riparian areas (United States Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service 1999).

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Rawhide Buttes lie south and west of the town of Lusk, along Highway 85. …

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