Before European settlement, mountain lions once occurred throughout Wisconsin, and moved between Wisconsin and neighboring states. Ideal habitat would have occurred in the forests, hills, and along the timbered streams, but mountain lions could have persisted anywhere there was ample prey.
Direct persecution, conversion of wildlands to agriculture and human development, roads and highways, and other forms of habitat loss all contributed to the decline and ultimate extirpation of mountain lions in Wisconsin.
Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today's Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.
What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago, and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the sabre-toothed lion.
During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleotologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Wisconsin, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.
Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840's, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.
As European settlers began to settle what would become the United States in earnest, they established farms, ranches, and towns, complete with various livestock. With the pigs, sheep, horses, cattle, and goats came conflict with the native wildlife. In 1895, the U. S. Department of Agriculture established Wildlife Services, whose mandate was rodent control and predator eradication. The idea that predators were vermin who should be removed from the landscape was echoed by bounty programs supported by many states. Mountain lions, wolves, bears, and bobcats were poisoned, shot, trapped, or otherwise killed by the thousands.
In addition to heavy mountain lion persecution in the name of livestock protection, expanding markets for fur further reduced mountain lion numbers. In the 1600s, the fur trade in the Americas became globalized and hides obtained from Native Americans were shipped to Europe where they were in high demand. Europeans imported goods useful to Indians and were able to trade for the furs in exchange. Starting in 1602, the Company of New France was given a royal charter and exclusive trading rights from Florida to the Arctic.
By the 1850s, these trapping efforts made mountain lions increasingly rare in the eastern two thirds of the continent. Mountain lions were functionally extinct in the Midwest by 1860, the mid-Atlantic states by 1882, in the south coastal states by 1886, in central Appalachia by 1900, and in New England by 1906. Unfortunately, mountain lions in Wisconsin were subject to the same forces and did not fare any better.
Though cougars have been functionally extinct for over a century, the USFWS continues to receive reports of sightings. They have not been able to confirm any of these cats were the eastern cougar subspecies, rather they believe these individuals have been released pets or lions dispersing from the western population.
It's possible that only one specimen of a native Wisconsin mountain lion, Puma concolor schorgeri, has been preserved in the state's records. It was killed near Appleton in Outagamie County in 1857. The tanned skin (removed from a mount and tanned) and the skull are No. 13,464 in the University of Wisconsin Zoological Collection. This adult male was large and apparently rather dark and reddish. This particular individual was possibly almost as large as P. c. hippolestes and apparently darker. Hartley H. H. Jackson designated it as a new subspecies, the Wisconsin puma (Jackson 1955), but because only one specimen was available, it is an invalid subspecies. According to the Wisconsin DNR, the last native mountain lion was killed in 1908 in the northwestern part of the state.
With the appropriate protections to the species and their habitat, perhaps we could recover our lost mountain lions, and they could once again wander the land in which they formerly lived.