Ecological case for cougars

In his review of John Laundre’s book Phantoms of the Prairie [November/December 2012] Philip Terrie writes that, “In the grand scheme of things there’s nothing that makes a polar bear more significant than a garter snake, a Bengal tiger more worthy of our attention than a chickadee.” But over the last few decades a large body of scientific work has shown that big predators like wolves and cougars are crucial to the healthy functioning of ecosystems, from the Great Plains to the African savanna. In order to overcome public resistance to the idea of reintroducing cougars in the Northeast, advocates need to move beyond the spiritual or aesthetic argument, valid as it may be, and make the case for their role in the ecology of the Park.

What happens to forest ecosystems in the absence of wolves and cougars? For one thing, deer may proliferate (especially as winters become less harsh) and through over-browsing profoundly alter forest dynamics as has happened in Pennsylvania. Even the return of the moose to the Adirondacks raises questions of how a growing population will be managed in the absence of natural predators.

And though cougars have begun to disperse throughout parts of the Midwest it is far from clear that they are establishing viable populations in those areas. We should not paint too rosy a picture. The likelihood that cougars will return to the East on their own is slim. Making the case for why they should be reintroduced is essential.

Adam Federman, Panton, VT
Federman is a member of the Adirondack Explorer board of directors.

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