Lions, and tigers, and bears: Oh my! Well, maybe not tigers. But lions and bears? Probably.
According to DNR wildlife biologists, the reports of black bears, bobcats, wolves and even mountain lions, have increased dramatically during the past several years. Although reminiscent of the 1800s pioneer era, the sightings of such fearsome predators in Iowa is not an aberration, but merely reflects what is already occurring in bordering states.
"During the past two years, we've received nearly a dozen separate reports of free ranging mountain lions within Iowa borders," says DNR Furbearer Specialist, Ron Andrews.
Most lion sightings have been reported from the rugged, loess hills region of extreme western Iowa. One recent sighting, however, came from along the Des Moines River corridor near Dayton in Webster County. This report was accompanied by a rare piece of "hard evidence" when personnel with the Webster County conservation board presented Andrews with a plaster casting of the animal's track. DNR wildlife biologist, Mel Moe made another [footprint] casting earlier this year from an animal sighted in southern Iowa's Decatur County. Another lion, this time a female with two young, was reported twice near the southern Iowa community of Woodburn.
"The fact that DNR biologists are receiving increased reports of cougar sightings really comes as no surprise," said Andrews.
"I'm getting similar reports from biologists working in Nebraska, northern Missouri, and southeastern South Dakota. Although no one can say for sure why it's happening, there is certainly a wealth of circumstantial evidence that mountain lions are slowly expanding their range. Individual cats can travel a hundred miles or more without detection. I think we're [biologists] all convinced that at least a limited number of lions are currently moving in and out of the state."
In the brushy habitats of extreme western, southern, and southeastern Iowa, bobcat populations are faring extremely well. So well, in fact, that the DNR is currently in the process of removing bobcats from the state's endangered species list.
"We have also had a handful of confirmed black bear sightings in Iowa during recent years," said Andrews. "Almost all of these have come from the extreme northeastern corner of the state, and I think that it's safe to speculate that these animals have moved down from Minnesota or across Mississippi River ice from Wisconsin. One female had two young, but we think she probably brought them with her. Although I wouldn't say for sure, I doubt we're seeing any reproduction on this side of the river. It is also possible that some of these animals may have escaped from game farm type operations."
Andrews added that Arkansas black bears are currently expanding their range into Missouri. Given enough time, Missouri bears could eventually end up in southeastern Iowa.
There is also speculation - and at this point that's all it is - that gray [timber] wolves may have recently explored portions of extreme north Iowa. Gray wolves are being documented as far south as Winona, Minnesota. Wolves are also noted for long distance movements, and employees with both the National Park Service and the DNR predict that at least a few stragglers will be leaving their tracks along northeast Iowa ridgetops within a few years.
Andrews notes that wolves, lions and bears currently enjoy no legal protection in Iowa. However, the DNR is becoming interested in providing the species with "furbearer status" which would allow them the same considerations granted to other Iowa mammals.
What this does not mean is that it's time to grab your babies and run for cover.
"With the exception of bobcats, I doubt that we'll ever see any significant numbers of large predators in Iowa," said Andrews.
"Because of their secretive nature, there may be an occasional litter of young, but I think that they will be few and far between."
"All of these animals are generally regarded as wilderness species. But as civilization continues to advance, it is really amazing how adaptable they can be."