Date of Award
Master of Science
Cougars (Puma concolor) have been recolonizing Midwestern North America over the past 2 decades with >950 cougar confirmations east of established populations. Management and public interest in habitat suitability and connectivity east of current cougar range have grown as confirmations increase and models predicting habitat connectivity and population viability for the Midwest show potential for breeding populations. However, although long-range dispersal and recolonization continues, no studies have assessed potential habitat associated with cougars throughout their historical range in eastern North America. I used ArcGIS, the Analytical Hierarchy Process, and geospatial data to model cougar habitat and potential dispersal corridors in eastern North America. The total amount of potential habitat was >2,400,000 km2 and mean patch size was 257,500 km2. Patches of habitat ranged in size from 3,868 km2 (Ozark Mountains) to >2,490,850 km2 (central and eastern Canada) with ≤53,643 km of dispersal corridors connecting patches. With cougars potentially recolonizing areas previously devoid of large carnivores, public acceptance of management efforts is pivotal for the success of their recolonization. However, targeted surveys assessing public perceptions and knowledge of cougars and red wolves (Canis rufus), who have faced similar extirpation in the Southeastern United States are limited. I mailed 20,000 questionnaires and 2,000 follow-up postcards to residents near areas of potential red wolf and cougar habitat in the Southeastern United States in 2020. I used cumulative link models to gauge the associations between sociodemographic predictor with respondent’s knowledge and attitude towards large carnivores. Total response rate was 4.6% with the majority of respondents identifying as male (53.6%), having a 4-year degree or above (54.1%), and 57 ± 16 (SE) years of age. Respondents’ knowledge and attitudes towards large carnivores were largely positive (≥63% positive) with higher education, older age, and current livestock ownership being largest predictors for responses. Attitudes towards red wolves were largely driven by knowledge of red wolves while attitudes towards cougars were primarily driven by livestock ownership. Livestock owners (71.5%) were concerned about safety of livestock in large carnivore habitat, and most respondents (61%) did not trust their local agency to effectively manage large carnivore populations. My research provides a foundation for wildlife managers to develop informed plans, educational programs, and policy decisions for potentially recolonizing large carnivore populations.
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