Date of Award
Master of Science
Large carnivores in the United States are making a comeback following decades of systematic eradication. Black bears (Ursus americanus), cougars (Puma concolor), and gray wolves (Canis lupus) may recolonize the midwestern United States provided there is substantial suitable habitat. However, viability of large carnivore populations is as dependent on social acceptance as on biological factors. I developed individual and combined models of suitable habitat for black bears, cougars, and wolves in 18 midwestern states using geospatial data, expert-opinion surveys, and multi-criteria evaluation. I also assessed attitudes and perceptions of Illinois citizens about large carnivores via a mail-in survey. Experts indicated land cover was the most important variable for predicting potential habitat for black bears and cougars; human density was the most influential variable for wolves. Large, contiguous areas of suitable habitat comprised 35%, 21%, and 13% of the study region for wolves, bears, and cougars, respectively. About 12% of the region was considered suitable for all 3 species. Arkansas, Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin had the highest proportions (>40%) of suitable habitat for black bears; Arkansas, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin had the most (≥20%) suitable cougar habitat; and only 4 states in the study region contained <29% suitable wolf habitat. Models were validated by comparing suitability values of independent sets of known carnivore locations to those of random locations, and models appeared accurate. More than 70% of survey respondents (n = 791) were male and their average age was 60; 55% were hunters. Approximately 40% were unsure about the population status of large carnivores in Illinois; of the remaining respondents, most (ranging from 20% for black bears to 41% for cougars) believed the presence of all 3 species had increased over the past decade. More residents supported protection (43%) and increasing numbers of large carnivores (39%) than opposed them (26%), although support for black bears was slightly higher than for cougars and wolves. Rural residents and livestock owners were the most likely to want carnivore numbers to decrease and least likely to support their protection; higher levels of education corresponded to positive attitudes toward large carnivores. My research provides the foundation for well-informed management plans, policy decisions, and educational initiatives for large carnivores in midwestern states where large carnivore populations have been absent for decades.
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