The tale of a cougar


Cougars have been persecuted for centuries. BIGSTOCKPHOTO.COM
Cougars have been persecuted for centuries.

On a snowy winter night in Lake George, in 2010, Cindy Eggleston’s motion-detecting light came on in her back yard. She looked out her kitchen window and saw a big cat. A really big cat. Her husband, a retired conservation officer, guessed that it must have been a bobcat. No, she said, “it had a long tail.” So he went out to look around. In the snow he found huge tracks and, eventually, a hair sample. DNA analysis subsequently showed that these hairs came from a cougar, an animal whose last proven presence in the Adirondacks had occurred over a century before.

The life and death of this wandering cougar, along with a history of this splendid animal in North America and a discussion of its current status, are the subjects of Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk across America, a fascinating book by William Stolzenburg. He debunks myths and spins an engaging and often sad story.

That story begins in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where a male cougar was born sometime in 2008. Extirpated from the Black Hills in the nineteenth century, cougars had clawed their way back by the 1970s, almost certainly from the eastern Rockies. They established a precarious breeding population and were almost immediately subjected to routine persecution whenever encountered, despite a brief period as an endangered and thus protected species. In a way characteristic of attitudes toward this animal throughout American history, legislators, farmers, and hunters pursued and killed them. Against the advice of wildlife experts and despite the absence of any evidence that cougars posed a threat to anyone or any species, wild or domestic, South Dakota declared an open hunting season in 2005. Since then, their numbers have declined, though they are hanging on. For centuries and in nearly every part of their range, cougars have been persecuted mercilessly.

Heart of a Lion By William Stolzenburg Bloomsbury, 2016 Hardcover, 256 pages, $27
Heart of a Lion
By William Stolzenburg
Bloomsbury, 2016
Hardcover, 256 pages, $27

The other side of this coin, as Stolzenburg deftly shows, is a community of true believers, convinced that secret colonies of cougars have persisted throughout their historic range, including the Adirondacks. Every state in the East has periodic reports of cougar sightings, ostensibly “proving” the existence of a resident breeding population. Notwithstanding the absence of corpses, verifiable scat, the discovery of dens with kittens, or any other useful evidence, the faithful insist that the conservation bureaucracy of whatever state they happen to live in is willfully concealing what it knows or even covertly introducing cougars from other parts of the country. Stolzenburg does what he can to point out the absurdity of such a strange brew of hope and denial, but probably nothing can erase it.

Into this contentious mix of cougar hatred and cougar love strode the demonstrably real cougar that passed through Lake George in 2010. And what a story, beautifully rehearsed in this book, that cougar’s epic trek reveals! A young male in search of a mate, this cougar wandered east, probably beginning in late summer 2009, and made his way to Minnesota, where he was videotaped outside Minneapolis heading for the Mississippi River. No fewer than eight verifiable sightings occurred across Wisconsin. These were not the sightings so often produced by the cougar faithful farther east—a fleeting glimpse out of a moving car window, for example, with no tracks or any other evidence. The Wisconsin evidence involved unmistakable footprints in the snow, videos, and DNA samplings. Nobody with scientific expertise doubted the existence of this cougar. While specialists tracked its route, scare stories about threats to children and everyone else inevitably began to clutter the airwaves and social media. Through the winter and spring, Wisconsin newspapers, talk shows, and Twitter threads were full of dire warnings about slavering beasts crouching behind every tree. Nothing remotely amiss ever occurred.

From Wisconsin, the cougar proceeded farther east, into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where it tripped the shutter of a trail camera in May 2010. It probably crossed from Sault Ste. Marie into Ontario and then into New York somewhere around the Thousand Islands. This is a blank stretch in the cougar’s route, but because of the definitive reliability of DNA evidence, the cougar that showed up at Lake George in December of that year was unquestionably the same one that crossed Wisconsin.

Then it was down the Hudson and into southwest Connecticut. In June 2011, he was photographed in Greenwich, and the usual frenzy of interest combined with fear ensued. Parks were closed, children were kept inside, bloggers went nuts. Only a week later, the end came. The cougar was hit and killed by a car on a highway near Milford. The final DNA samples proved without a doubt that this was the cat followed by scientists across Wisconsin and, moreover, that it had originated in the Black Hills, thousands of miles to the west. This cougar “had wandered farther from his birthplace than any big cat ever tracked.”

A couple of familiar names pop up in this book. One is that of John Laundré, whose Phantoms of the Prairie: The Return of Cougars to the Midwest I reviewed for the Explorer in 2012. Laundré is a wildlife biologist whose academic career has been devoted to the habits and status of large carnivores, including the cougar. In Phantoms he chronicled the spread of cougars out of the Rockies and into parts of their ancient range in the Midwest. Stolzenburg, in his efforts to deal with this magnificent cat realistically and accurately, refers frequently to Laundré’s research.

Another name some of us have seen before is that of Chris Spatz, who last summer, at the annual meeting of Protect the Adirondacks held at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center, delivered a superb lecture on the possibilities of cougar restoration in the East. Spatz is an interesting fellow. Growing up in New Jersey and eventually settling near New York’s Shawangunk Mountains, Spatz developed a feverish faith in the eastern cougar’s existence and energetically started “down the rabbit hole of Eastern cougar lore—into a world of true believers.” He searched doggedly in New York and New Jersey, coming up, inevitably, with nothing. Unlike some of the faithful, however, he looked cold facts in the eye and accepted reality: there were no breeding cougars in the East.

But that didn’t mean there never could be breeding cougars in the East. Spatz refocused his efforts: he began to research the whole story of the handful of cougars spreading out from the Rockies and the Black Hills. And he began pressuring various eastern state wildlife offices to consider actively reintroducing cougars to suitable parts of their ancient range, including, as Laundré had also suggested, the Adirondacks. Spatz now works with the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, advocating for cougar restoration, promoting sound research on the movement of cougars beyond their current range, and educating the public about the importance of bringing back these peak predators to eastern forests.

Cougar’s Trek

Beside the sheer joy of knowing that a charismatic creature like the cougar was once more occupying former habitat, there are other reasons for hoping that they can once again dwell in our forests. Chief among these is the explosion of white-tailed deer populations throughout the East. Not only are deer giving headaches to farmers and gardeners, spreading Lyme disease, and causing car accidents wherever they proliferate, out-of-control deer populations are also threatening the ecological diversity of entire forest communities as their voracious browsing virtually eliminates some plant species and allows others—not appealing to deer—to become overrepresented and out of balance.

The cougar—usually called mountain lion or panther in the classic Adirondack sporting and touring narratives of the nineteenth century—was once a rarely seen but vital feature of the Adirondack ecosystem. But, hated and feared by nearly everyone, they disappeared from northern New York around the turn of the twentieth century. Since then their absence has been an unavoidable reminder of the wilderness that once was and the wilderness that might be again.

As Stolzenburg, Laundré, and Spatz all know and as Stolzenburg in particular points out in this fine book, the odds of both male and female cougars making their way this far east from the Black Hills (or from anywhere else they have an established population) are slim; so far, all the emigrants from the Black Hills have been males. Equally unlikely is that a state wildlife agency, such as our Department of Environmental Conservation, could muster the millions of dollars it would take to initiate a viable restoration project, not to mention overcoming the certain public resistance to releasing such an impressive carnivore so close to Adirondack towns.

Cougars may some day come back or be brought back to the Adirondacks but probably not for decades. In the meantime, this delightful book tells us about one that certainly did pass through our Park. The journey of this remarkable animal from South Dakota to an undignified death on a Connecticut highway is a tale of amazing persistence, a suggestion of the feline nobility that we have lost. Stolzenburg’s depressing account of the unscientific, baseless hostility to cougars in the Black Hills and all along this one cat’s trek east also reveals the greatest obstacle to their eventual return.

Philip Terrie is the author of Wildlife and Wilderness: A History of Adirondack Mammals, among other books.