A new study by wildlife biologist John Laundre concludes that the Adirondack Park has enough wild habitat and prey to support up to 350 cougars—a finding dismissed as “a fantasy” by another biologist who once investigated the feasibility of restoring cougars to the region.
“It’s a great idea. We looked at it thirty years ago,” said Rainer Brocke, a professor emeritus at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “We found there wasn’t any chance for them.”
Laundre, however, contends that Brocke’s 1981 study was premised on the faulty assumption that cougars cannot live in proximity to people and roads. “It is likely that this assumption arose because it was only in the more remote areas of the west where cougars were able to survive persecution by humans, which continued up to the 1970s,” Laundre writes in the January issue of Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation (click here to read the abstract).
Since then, he says, most western states have restricted the hunting of cougars, and the cats are now flourishing close to civilization. In the late 1900s, for example, cougars returned to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Although the Black Hills region is smaller than the Adirondack Park and has a greater road density, it supports a population of 130 to 140 cougars, according to Laundre. (A cougar killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011 is believed to have migrated from the Black Hills.)
An instructor at the State University College at Oswego, Laundre also points out that nearly 90 percent of the roads in the Adirondacks are low-traffic or unpaved. “Data indicate that cougars are reluctant to cross paved roads but not dirt roads,” he writes. “Accordingly, I assumed that the presence of dirt roads would not affect cougars directly and so did not exclude them from my calculations of areas suitable for cougars.”
Laundre estimates that roughly six thousand square miles—more than 60 percent of the Park—is suitable habitat for cougars. He says the Park could support a population of 150 to 350 cougars. In the 1981 study, Brocke had estimated that about three thousand square miles in the Park was suitable habitat, but he concluded that the great number of roads in the region would lead to car-cougar collisions, poaching, and other conflicts with humans.
Laundre and Brocke also disagree over whether the Park has enough deer to sustain a cougar population. Laundre estimates that the cougars would kill fewer than 10 percent of the region’s deer each year. Brocke, however, said deer are relatively scarce in the Park, especially in the deep woods. If cougars are reintroduced, he added, they would migrate outside the Park where there are more deer.
“The first thing that’s going to happen is that the cougars will move out of the Adirondacks, immediately. They’ll scatter in all directions,” Brocke said.
Laundre, who is vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, a group that supports restoring cougars in the East, firmly believes the Adirondacks can support the big cats. The bigger question, in his mind, is whether the public would accept them. Many hunters, livestock owners, and others likely would oppose a reintroduction. Laundre contends that the fear of cougars is overblown.
“If we address these issues in light of existing data rather than emotional rhetoric, there is a high probability that cougars could be successfully reintroduced to Adirondack State Park and other suitable areas in the eastern USA. What is now required is the will to bring them back.”
You can read more about mountain lions in the Adirondacks here at the Almanack.
Illustration above: Cougar Known Range and Confirmations (to 2011) according to The Cougar Network. Green = established populations; Blue = confirmation beyond reasonable doubt; Red = probable (very strong evidence); Yellow = claimed populations awaiting verification. Photo below, a mountain lion killed on a Connecticut highway last year that had migrated more than 1,500 miles from South Dakota (Courtesy of the Connecticut Department of Energy and the Environment).