Last week, the organization, PROTECT the Adirondacks, announced that they plan to begin a program, entitled Cougar Watch, for developing a database of Mountain Lion sightings in and around the Park. For years, many reputable individuals have claimed to have glimpsed this large member of the cat family, which has led some people to wonder whether a small population of these highly adaptable predators currently exists within the boundaries of the Blue Line. With all the sightings entered into a publicly accessible database, it might be easier to draw some conclusions regarding the status of this reclusive feline in northern New York.
The Department of Environmental Conservation, and some wildlife authorities, maintain that there are no cougars residing in the State, and any sightings are either of some other form of wildlife, or a transient cougar that is passing through the area, like the one that crossed our region and was killed by a car in Conn. on June 11, 2011. DNA analysis of this 140 pound animal revealed that it came from a population in South Dakota and was probably looking to establish a territory of its own.
The young of most species are known to leave the area of their birth and seek out a place that affords both food and potential breeding partners. Since this cat had to traverse vast stretches of land abundant in deer, the cougar’s principle source of prey, it must have been the total lack of any member of the opposite sex that kept it moving across the country, even through regions of prime white-tail country.
The low density of deer in most sections of the Adirondacks makes this area only marginally acceptable as a potential home for the cougar. While this large cat was present throughout northern New York well before Europeans came to the continent, there is very little data that indicates the extent of their numbers in our region. The primordial forests of the Adirondacks were not considered to be favorable for deer, so it is assumed that the mountain lion was also in very limited numbers in this region prior to the invasion of loggers in the 1800’s.
Because of the shy and secretive habits of the cougar, sightings of this big cat are extremely rare, even in places out west where its population is considered to be healthy. The presence of virtually all forms of wildlife is determined by other forms of evidence other than by direct observation. Tracks are a fundamental record of a ground dweller as it moves over the terrain and a very temporary feature of the landscape for which naturalists are always on the look out. (For example, I have only glimpsed one moose in the Adirondacks, however I have seen their tracks on enough occasions to know that they are in the area. Similarly, I know that a small pack of coyotes periodically ventures near my house as I regularly encounter their tracks and, on occasions, hear their yelping-howls, yet I have not seen any of these elusive predators in my neighborhood in the past decade.) In areas out west, even where the cougar is not considered abundant, naturalists and hunters report regularly encountering its tracks as this animal is known to travel many miles in its search for prey and leaves behind an abundance of tracks.
A paw print of a cougar is just over 3 inches in length, and like both dogs and other cats, the print only shows four toes. One unique feature of a cougar track is that the distance of the toes in front of the pad varies with each toe, much as the length of a person’s four fingers varies from the palm of their hand. The second toe from the inside is slightly longer, as is our middle finger. (While the illustration of some cougar tracks have all of their toes symmetrically placed, this is an error, as a good cougar track is not completely symmetrical, nor is the hand print of a human.) Also, the base of the pad shows three lobes, especially on its hind foot, which is usually made just above its front paw print. Like all cat tracks, a cougar travels with its claws pulled into its paws. If a track shows claw prints just above the toes, it is most probably that of a dog. The lynx has a paw roughly the same size as that of the cougar producing a foot print comparable in size to the cougar. However, because of the smaller size of the lynx, it prints are spaced closer together. Also, since the lynx resides in bitter cold regions, the bottom of its enlarged foot is covered with fur which obliterates the print of its toes in the snow, or soft soil.
Noting the tracks of wildlife, or the absence of them, provides naturalists, hunters, trappers and landowners with insight into which creatures are residing in an area, and which ones are not. I believe that, over the past several decades, a few cougars may have wandered through the Park in their search for a breeding partner, only to find none. A good database with evidence of cougar’s presence in the Park should be an interesting wildlife resource, however, I would expect that the bulk of evidence in this file would be the report of tracks from experienced outdoors enthusiasts and sportsmen.
Photo: A cougar track in Lake George in 2011 (courtesy DEC).