Cougars are again spreading across the Midwest a century after the generally reclusive predators were hunted to near extinction in much of the region, according to a new study billed as the first rigorous statistical look at the issue. The findings, detailed in The Journal of Wildlife Management, showed 178 cougar confirmations in the Midwest and as far south as Texas between 1990 and 2008. While confirmed sightings of Midwest cougars were sporadic before 1990, when there were only a couple, that number spiked to more than 30 by 2008, the study shows. The study sorts through various reported sightings and affixes a number to those it could confirm, which is significant because no government agency tracks the number of large cats across the country. Wildlife officials have for years said it’s unclear how many of the animals may be in the Midwest, where they are not federally protected and, in some states, can be hunted. Of the cougar confirmations by researchers, roughly 62 percent took place within some 12 miles of habitat considered suitable for the animals’ populations. Sixty-seven of the confirmations were in Nebraska, 31 in North Dakota, 12 each in Oklahoma and Texas, 11 in South Dakota and 10 in Missouri. Single-digit tallies were in Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas and Michigan.