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Cougars making a comeback in US Midwest

American cougars are moving back into their native US Midwest habitat after nearly going extinct last century.

The study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, said that the number of cougars (also known as mountain lions or pumas) living in the Midwest have gone from less than 100, to over 30,000, in the last 20 years.

Michelle LaRue, researcher from the University of Minnesota, told the Guardian she believes the cougar population in the Midwest was actually, "effectively zero" two decades ago. 

The group studied 178 confirmed cougar sightings over the last 20 years to reach their new population estimate, according to MSNBC. They also found that sightings have increased steadily since 1990. The most sightings, 67, have been in Nebraska.

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The research will help states and individual communities deal with the new influx of big cats, including how to educate residents about the animals and whether they should be protected.

"It's going to be interesting to see how people respond if the population continues growing," Clay Nielsen, one of the authors of the study and professor of forest wildlife at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, told USA Today.

The researchers noted that aggressive hunting by settlers and a lack of prey erased the animals from their traditional range.

The group also said that while the cougar population is on the rise, sightings are still incredibly rare, and that humans shouldn't fear them. 

"The risk of being attacked by cougars is very, very, very low," Nielsen told MSNBC. "Man has much more to fear from fellow humans and many other animals than cougars in the Midwest."