After feds’ ruling, wildlife advocate urges states to import western cougars to the Adirondacks and New England.
By PHIL BROWN
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in January that the eastern cougar is extinct and so removed it from the federal list of endangered species. The odd thing, though, is that the eastern cougar may never have existed.
There’s no question that cougars—also known as panthers, pumas, or mountain lions—once roamed the Adirondacks and much of the East. However, many scientists contend that all North American cougars belong to the same subspecies. If they are right, the “eastern cougar” per se never existed and therefore is extinct only in the sense that unicorns are extinct.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s classification of the eastern cougar as a distinct subspecies is based on research from the 1940s. In its ruling, the service acknowledges that modern research, including DNA analysis, has cast considerable doubt on the earlier taxonomy. It may revise the cougar’s taxonomy as part of a study of the Florida panther, but for now FWS is sticking with the old classification.
The Florida cats constitute the only surviving population in the East. In the Adirondacks and elsewhere, cougars vanished as a result of overhunting and habitat destruction, among other causes. Under the older taxonomy, the Florida panther is a subspecies distinct from other eastern cougars.
The FWS ruling was not unexpected. It reaffirms a tentative conclusion that the agency reached a few years ago. The decision is unlikely to end the debate over whether cougars still live in the Adirondacks. There have been dozens of reported sightings in recent years.
Protect the Adirondacks has a Cougar Watch feature on its website and encourages people to submit reports of sightings. Peter Bauer, the group’s executive director, said Protect received thirteen reports last year. Although there have been credible sightings over the years, Protect has yet to turn up a photo, scat, hair sample, or footprint to back up the reports.
“Without bona-fide information, we, like other cougar-watch programs in the East, are chasing ghosts,” Bauer said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says most sightings in the East are cases of mistaken identity, while some are outright hoaxes. Any genuine sightings were of escaped or released pets or of western cougars dispersing eastward.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation agrees. Its website says cougars have been gone from the state since the late nineteenth century. The only confirmed sighting of a wild cougar in the state occurred near Lake George in 2010. That cat wandered into the Adirondacks all the way from South Dakota and was later killed by a car in Connecticut.
Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, argues that since the federal government has confirmed that no cougars live in the East, states should take steps to restore them.
Robinson said he’d like Governor Andrew Cuomo and governors from New England to initiate a study looking into the feasibility of restoring cougars in the Northeast. “This is an opportunity for visionary leadership,” he remarked.
Robinson said cougars would act as a check on the region’s deer population. Without an apex predator, he contends, the deer population has grown too big, causing a number of problems, including the overbrowsing of the forest understory, the spread of ticks that cause Lyme disease, and car-deer collisions.
“I’m not suggesting cougars themselves would solve these problems,” he said. “We’re talking about making things better.”
The two main questions for such a study are: Is there sufficient habitat for cougars in the Northeast? And would the public support a reintroduction?
In its ruling, FWS cites studies that concluded there is enough habitat. A 2013 study by wildlife biologist John Laundre said the Adirondack Park alone could support up to 350 cougars. Laundre called outdated a 1981 study that concluded that the Park could not support a cougar population.
Cougars out west have attacked pets, livestock, and even people, but such attacks are rare. Robinson is an avid hiker who lives in cougar country in New Mexico. Yet over the past twenty years he has caught only two fleeting glimpses of wild cougars.
“They are cryptic animals,” he said. “They see us, but typically we don’t see them. For the most part, they don’t want anything to do with us.”
Since western cougars are not endangered in the United States, FWS would not play a role restoring them to the East. Thus, it’s up to states to reintroduce them to the East, if that’s what they want to do.
DEC has no plans to restore the cougar to New York State. “Cougars are a large predator requiring ample prey and large areas to live in,” the department said in an email to the Explorer. “While the Adirondacks may be marginally large, deer numbers are not and the animals would likely wander into populated areas for food sources. Deer populations would be more suitable in other parts of the state, but those areas are in close proximity to human populations, and cougars could not be tolerated.”
At the moment, the eastern cougar is listed as endangered in New York State. In light of the federal ruling, however, DEC intends to remove the cat from the state list.
The Adirondack Council long ago raised the possibility of restoring cougars to the Park in a 1988 report called Biological Diversity: Saving All the Pieces. Spokesman John Sheehan said the environmental organization is still interested in the idea. “Getting the conversation started certainly makes sense at this point,” he said.