One need look no further than the Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2010 Strategic Plan for Forest Management to find the rationale to restore cougars to the Adirondacks. The plan details the destructive impacts and biodiversity loss of New York’s forests from superabundant white-tailed deer, a herd now estimated at more than one million.
Throughout much of New York, forest regeneration is in full arrest. Step into your nearest woodlot, state park, or forest. Notice the deer browse-line five feet high, the absence of seedlings and saplings, the carpets of deer-resistant ferns and invasive plants. Estimates of the Adirondacks’ whitetail herd are more than double the number per square mile that the strategic plan finds sustainable for the ecosystem.
One hundred Adirondack cougars, each taking thirty deer a year, won’t dent the whitetail population. What they will do, as study after western study has demonstrated, is change whitetail browsing behavior. Like border collies rotating sheep from pasture to pasture, cougar presence allows over-browsed vegetation to recover. In Zion and Yosemite National Parks, vegetation recovered in lockstep with cougar recolonization; beaver, fish, frogs, birds, and butterflies followed. Cougars, like wolves, guard and regulate ecosystems.
The support and rationale for recovering native species, especially one as critical to the state’s ecosystems as the cougar, is, in part, the very reason for DEC’s existence. Restoring cougars is the easiest, least expensive, and most seamlessly natural intervention DEC can implement to begin recovering the public forests they are entrusted to protect.
Christopher Spatz, Rosendale
Spatz is president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation.