Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Looking For Cougars In The Adirondacks

cougar trackLast 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).

Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years.

He has written numerous articles on natural history for a variety of magazines and wrote a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News for nearly ten years.

Tom has also written several books which focus on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. Along with writing, he also spends time photographing wildlife.



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15 Responses

  1. Other states and areas in the Northeast have long had compilations of alleged cougar sightings such as Protect is planning. Based on the few reports I have examined, some documented with photos, most are not cougars. (One report of a “black panther” was a released or escaped jaguar, which unlike cougars have a melanistic color phase.). My understanding is that almost all the sightings of cougars that are indeed valid sightings in the Northeast over recent decades are probably the sightings of escaped or released pet cougars and I believe there is some minimal DNA evidence for this claim. (These have the DNA of cougars from elsewhere – e.g., western U.S.)
    What would be particularly helpful I believe is a network of trail cameras and shared images such as he been started by the eMammal folks in the mid-Atlantic area and should be expanding to our area soon.

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    • barbara burg says:

      the DNA would have to be from western animals…that’s where they come from…..that does not mean they are pets.
      i also think pets might be less human-shy.
      i have photos of several foot prints of the cougar i saw…big cat, long swooping tail, walking along at a good rate…crossed the top of my field. i am in PA and we are given the same story as the NY folks.

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  2. Paul says:

    This project is most likely going to catalog a lack of evidence. But that is important to know I guess? It has garnered some PR. I even heard about it on the radio down here in the finger lakes.

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  3. Fred Warner says:

    In 1957 I saw my first cougar on our farm in Upper Jay. In 1959 I saw a cougar two more times in Upper Jay and once in Haselton, a backwoods area on the back road from Wilmington to BlackBrook. Again in 1967, while deer hunting on Weston Mountain, I saw another cougar. This cougar bounded out of a tree not 40 yards in front of me. There was evidence of deer kills by a predator throughout the area.

    In 1997 I saw a cougar near the Ticonderoga mill. It crossed the road and disappeared into brush along the Lake. In 1999 I was accompanied by a friend and we both saw a cougar that actually rested alongside the road not 25 feet from my car for a period of ten minutes. I had no cellphone camera or other way to record its sighting, but I knew exactly what it was.

    Perhaps these sightings were all of transient cougars roaming through the area, but they were sightings nonetheless.

    I’ve spent countless days and nights in the woods hunting, camping and hiking. I know a cougar when I see one.

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  4. Pete Nye says:

    Nice piece Tom, and well said, in that, yes, while a rare individual cougar MAY have wandered through NYS (and we have but one such example to date), any other valid observations are/were or captive animals. The proposed database, unfortunately, will be of little value. “Ask and ye shall receive” will unfortunately be the result. While at DEC for 38 yrs, we received hundreds of such “reports”, all of which were bogus, house cats, or very rarely released captive pumas. I have often thought it would be a fascinating exercise to release a satellite-tagged cougar, issue a press release, sit back and watch the “reports” that come in. Then, compare them to the actual known locations of the animals. Enough said. But, we can dream…

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    • Andre says:

      If there is one legitimate proven example that we humans know about – then there are CERTAINLY others that we don’t know about. That is life and nature. If you worked for the DEC you all should know that. I’m not at all saying there are breeding populations – but to believe the one killed in CT is the first and only wild one to pass through is pretty ridiculous. My question is – why would he leave South Dakota and end up in CT without getting the scent of a female??? I don’t have the answer – but obviously the scientific community doesn’t either since they all said before that no wild male would travel so far from his home territory.

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  5. C. Berg says:

    While most people want so desperately to believe that there are large predators roaming the Adirondacks, it’s just not so. The habitat just can’t support a population of sufficient size to maintain a breeding population. It’s well documented that one cat has traversed the Adirondacks, en route to Connecticut. Any other sighting, be they actually real, were likely transients or “parolee’s” released by incredibly misguided pet owners. None live here, at least not for very long.

    The fact is that the Adirondacks has a very low deer population, save for those areas around villages and towns. Top predators, mountain lions and wolves in this case, eat primarily deer. Neither are fond enough of human contact to wander the villages for a meal, and if they did very bad things would be bestowed upon them at the request of the local villagers fearful of the perceived threat from those animals, be it real or imagined.

    Compare the areas where reasonably large populations of mountain lions are found with the predominant habitat within the Adirondacks. Big differences exist between Idaho, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, California and the Adirondacks. The fact is that immense, old, mature hardwood forests just don’t support enough prey to support a sustainable population of mountain lions.

    A similar argument exists for wolves, which many are proposing be re-introduced. Those that would be released would be relegated to a short life dominated by starvation.

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    • barbara says:

      the article states that these animals are very adaptable. big difference between arizona and montana….yet the animal is accepted as being there.
      most forests in ny and in pa are NOT mature old growth trees, but have all the large trees taken for wood. thus younger forests that could support larger predators.
      and i take offense to your indication that we who HAVE seen these guys are all mistaken. i know what i saw; the tracks are as described in the article in my photo. i was not looking for a cougar….i was quite shocked as i realized what i was watching. no time for a photo, though.

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      • Paul says:

        It is illegal to cut trees in almost half of the acreage in the Adirondack park. I would think that these mature stands would make the land less hospitable to large predators due to the lack of large prey. These cats probably would enjoy eating the moose till they are gone. That is one good food source. If there is any kind of cat population around I would expect us to see it messing with domestic animals that are an easy kill. Remember when the moose were coming back how they kept trying to see if they could mate with local pigs. I remember they had one moose that they would relocate and a few days later he was back with his favorite pig. I saw this moose while biking near Saranac Lake one evening. I think his name was “big something-or-other” He had a collar. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. Back then it was a super rare sight.

        If there are cats around why can’t we get the right type of hound and see if we can find any?

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  6. Candace says:

    I never knew what a cougar looked like, but I saw and sketched what I observed crossing in front of me in the Adirondacks in 1995. Checking later in the day in a wildlife guide, it was clearly a cougar. The long tail was what I first noticed while watching the creature. That and the size of the animal were something quite different than any other wildlife I knew from outdoor adventures in the Adirondacks. It never made a sound . Now, looking at a map, I see I was less than two miles from ‘Cat Mountain’…. Maybe the name of that mountain holds a natural history lesson for DEC and some good stories for us!

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  7. Charlie S says:

    I travel all throughout the Capital region for my business and have met more than a few people who swear they saw a big cat in their neck of the woods,people who I surmised had no reason to lie to me.In Averill Park there has been sightings,and Wynantskill.I had a helper in my vehicle in November of 2012 when we were driving east of Saratoga Springs on Old Schuylerville Road in the early morning hours,at early light. He swears he saw a large cat run into the woods.The excitement in his voice had me convinced he saw something.There certainly are a lot of rugged woods in a lot of these areas where these cats were seen so who knows.I’d like to see one,and get a photo of it.
    That would be interesting Pete…to send out a press report about a released tagged cougar.I would bet it would be proven that many people have big imagination’s.

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  8. Charlie S says:

    Also my dad claims to have seen a big cougar crossing the road in Indian Lake ten years ago.My dad knows his animals and is not one to put out falsehoods.

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  9. Stephen Dehond says:

    I saw one running across the road near Corey’s New York about 16 years ago. This is an animal seen in daylight that is unmistakeable. It may be a transient, or a release from an irresponsible owner but there is no way it can be considered as anything else but a mountain lion.

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  10. Andre says:

    Not having much deer in parts of the ADK is not a rationale that the area couldn’t support cougars… Just yesterday I watched a program about them in the southwest of the US. In that region there were not many deer – but the cougars thrived. Long horned sheep were re-introduced and the cougars started to kill them. Point being – they are opportunistic…

    They are also known to live in Greater Los Angeles – so the idea that there are too many roads in the ADK also doesn’t make much sense. Just as the male who passed through Lake George and was killed in Connecticut made it through – others can and probably already did. The issue is getting a female for them to breed.

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  11. Cougars and wolves could both thrive here, but unfortunately they don’t anymore. This site has a nice summary of what many of us believe is the true current situation with cougars in the East: http://emammal.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/mountain-lions-in-the-eastern-us/. But let’s get some more camera traps out there.

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