North America's biggest cat is making a comeback and seems to be heading east in the process. After retreating to the western half of the country for more than a century, scores of cougars--a.k.a. mountain lions--have been spotted in the Midwest in recent years, thanks to the species-protection programs enacted by most Western states in the 1960s. And though the number of tawny carnivores in places like Illinois, Iowa and Missouri is still small--since 2003, only two dozen sightings have been confirmed in the Midwest--Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University and head researcher at the nonprofit Cougar Network, is gearing up for the possibility that more are on the way. With a grant from his university, Nielsen is starting the first large-scale research into the likely patterns of the cougar's Midwestern migration. "No one has tried to figure out where they might go," he says.
But even with few cougars in the region, widespread paranoia has settled in. Iowa has recorded hundreds of false sightings (five confirmed ones) over the past two years. "Almost every case is a mistaken identity," says Ron Andrews of Iowa's department of natural resources. "They're probably just seeing the neighbor's dog." --By Wendy Cole