Great Cats in the Greatland
By: Mike Rogers
The posting in a local Facebook group caught my attention, “BEWARE! There have been several reports of a mountain lion near the Bluff Cabin Trail…”. It was one of several reports in the Delta Junction area of a mountain lion in recent weeks, a trend that goes back for several years. Mountain lions aren’t historically native to Alaska, although the cats may be looking to change that in the future.
The history of mountain lion sightings in Alaska is a little complicated. A rash of sightings in Cooper Landing in the 1980s turned out to be a large yellow dog. Multiple reports of mountain lions every year turn out to be lynx. Well-meaning folks misidentify animals all the time due to poor lighting, fleeting glimpses and just unfamiliarity. However, with animals there are always a handful of reports that aren’t easily dismissed. Experienced outdoors folks who know local fauna, like a Tok hunting guide reporting a lion sunning on a rock or a Delta trapper seeing one at 30 yards in his backyard.
That’s not to say there haven’t been confirmed sightings with physical evidence in the past. In December of 1998, a trapper caught one in a wolf snare on South Kupreanof Island and in 1989 a mountain lion was shot near the town of Wrangell. Both of those places are in the temperate Southeast portion of the state just west of known established populations of mountain lions in neighboring British Columbia. A curious cat roaming down one of the major river drainages isn’t that unthinkable.
There’s good precedence for that. In the lower 48 states, mountain lions are repopulating eastern states at something of an astonishing rate. A mountain lion struck by a car in Connecticut in 2011 was one of a number of cats with a genetic profile in a South Dakota study and a GPS collared mountain lion roamed from the Black Hills clear into central Missouri in a matter of weeks. Mountain lions hadn’t been seen in Tennessee since the early 1900s and now since 2015, confirmed sightings extend across the state.
While Americans tend to think of the mountain lion as a N. American species, the big cat has the largest range of any terrestrial animal in the Western hemisphere spanning 110 degrees of latitude- from the Yukon to Patagonia. The species has a remarkable ability to adapt to nearly any environment from rocky deserts of California and New Mexico to Florida swamps through the jungles of Central America. In Canada, the cats are migrating north in the Yukon and thought to be paralleling the movements of deer herds.
It’s perhaps mule deer that brought them into the Interior. While there are a number of credible mountain lion sightings, there doesn’t exist any firm evidence. The same isn’t true of deer. Mule deer have been showing up in the Interior regularly enough the last few years that the species was added to the Alaska Fish and Game regulations allowing the species to be taken during hunting season provided hunters provide biological samples to the department. Mule deer have been seen in a nearly straight line west from Canadian population in Tok, Delta Junction, Salcha and Fairbanks with numerous photos of the animals at the Eielson airfield. A big cat following mule deer into the Interior doesn’t seem terribly far fetched as the two species coexist nearly everywhere mule deer are found.
If there is a small population of mountain lions roaming the sparsely populated Interior, it may be some time before physical evidence is found to confirm that. Mountain lions are largely nocturnal, furtive, silent, and solitary. They typically have population densities that are quite low, roughly 0.5 animals per 100 square kilometers. Even on Vancouver Island, the highest known concentration of the animals anywhere, the population runs 1 animal per 53 square kilometers. In other words, even when there are a lot of them, there just isn’t that many of them. At an expected ultra low density at the extreme fringe of their range, sighting one would be extremely lucky.
Will mountain lions eventually establish a permanent breeding population in Alaska? Perhaps they already have and we just don’t know it yet.