Sunday, January 4, 2015

Will Cougars Return To The Adirondacks?

Cougar in Montana Photo by BigStockPhoto dot comDarcy Wiltse, a veterinarian, was driving on Route 458 near Meacham Lake one night early last winter when she saw a large animal crossing the road. She’s convinced it was a cougar.

“I saw the whole profile again. I saw the body. I saw the tail,” said Wiltse. “She even hesitated on the other side of the road before she went into the trees.”

Wiltse said this was the second time she’s seen a cougar in the Adirondacks. The first one was outside her house in Lake Placid about eight years ago in early winter. In that case, the cougar set off a motion-sensor light outside a window while it was eating bacon grease set out for birds. Wiltse watched the animal through a window with the aid of a flashlight.

“I literally went from the tip of her tail right up her whole body to her head,” Wiltse said. “Then she turned, looked right at me. Then she took off.”

The experience took about fifteen seconds. The animal left tracks, but by morning they were covered by snow. Wiltse, who holds two degrees from Cornell University, has been a veterinarian for thirty-one years and is confident that in both cases she saw a mountain lion.

“I know the difference between bobcat and mountain lion,” she said.

Her account is just one of seventeen “credible” sightings reported to Protect the Adirondacks from April 2013 through August 2014—the first eighteen months of the organization’s Cougar Watch initiative. “We continue to get several reports a month, and about half of those are hard to dispute,” said Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect. “They are adamant that what they saw was not a housecat and what they saw was not a fisher or any other type of long-tailed animals.”

Three sightings occurred within the same region within a relatively short period of time in 2014: east of Tupper Lake on June 4; east of Saranac Lake on July 12; and in Lake Clear on July 24. It’s possible, Bauer said, that different people were seeing the same animal.

Bauer said Protect deems accounts credible based on interviews. Also, the organization received photos of what are believed to be two sets of cougar tracks. So far, however, Cougar Watch has turned up no physical evidence of mountain lions roaming the Adirondack woods—no fur, no DNA samples, no photographs.

He said the animals could be wanderers from the Midwest or Canada. Cougars, especially young males, are known to travel hundreds of miles in search of mates and habitat.

State biologists say cougars vanished from New York State in the late 1800s as a result of predation by humans and the destruction of habitat, but many people insist that the big cats continue to live or at least pass through the Adirondack Park. Over the years, there have been hundreds of unsubstantiated sightings. The state Department of Environmental Conservation insists that most sightings are cases of mistaken identity and that any actual cougars observed are likely escaped or released pets.

DEC knows of only one wild cougar to have been in the state in recent decades: a young male was spotted in December 2010 in Lake George, where it left behind tracks and fur. It was killed by a car in Connecticut six months later. Scientists said it originated in the Black Hills of South Dakota and had traveled more than 1,500 miles.

Chris Spatz, president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, cast doubt on the sightings recorded by Protect, saying that physical evidence would be available if cougars were in the Adirondacks. He said mountain lions show up all the time in Midwestern states, where there is no evidence of breeding populations. They wander into towns and cities and “get hit, shot, snared, treed, wander in front of random remote cams.”

“Why not in the Dacks?” he asked.

He said his organization has conducted a decade of camera studies in seven eastern states, investigated fifteen years of sightings from Nova Scotia to Mississippi, looked at hundreds of solicited photographs, and found only one single confirmed cougar photo. That happened to be the same cougar that was killed in Connecticut.

Bobcat Photo by BigStockPhoto dot com“I wrote to Protect when they started the project that it was well-intentioned but doomed,” he said. “No one on the East Coast has gotten one piece of evidence from documenting sightings clusters. Not once. Their project will do nothing but perpetuate the fantasy of recovery, which is a huge distraction from what we should be discussing: restoring ecologically functioning populations of all the missing megafauna, including cougars, to the Adirondacks.”

Whether or not cougars exist in the Adirondacks, some wildlife advocates say the state should prepare the public for their possible return. Because the cougar population has been expanding out west, it may be just a matter of time before they reach the Adirondacks.

This past fall the Wildlife Conservation Society’s office in Saranac Lake released a report titled “Puma Concolor Cougar in the Adirondack Park: Resident and Visitor Perspectives.” The paper was authored by Heidi Kretser, who works for WCS, and Elizabeth McGovern, a master’s student at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“One of the conclusions of the paper is that we think the state agencies and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in the region should actually start to think about putting out brochures or public-service announcements about co-existing with cougars,” Kretser said. “Cougars are potentially coming back.”

McGovern surveyed 315 people in the Park, both residents and non-residents. Seventy percent of the residents and 84 percent of non-residents said they would not object if cougars returned to the Adirondacks on their own. In contrast, only 36 percent of residents and 40 percent of non-residents want the state to reintroduce the cats. Forty-four percent of residents and 58 percent of non-residents said state agencies should take action to facilitate their natural return. Only 23 percent of residents and non-residents surveyed said that the risks associated with living with mountain lions are well understood.

Gordon Batcheller, DEC’s chief wildlife biologist,thinks it’s premature to start preparing the public for the possible return of cougars. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if a breeding population established itself on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the near future, but the animal is probably decades away from recolonizing the Adirondacks. He added that suitable habitat likely exists in the northern forest stretching from New York to Maine.

“It’s not rocket science really to take a look at our landscape in the Northeast,” he said. “There’s a lot of habitat there, and an animal like the mountain lion could probably survive.”

If cougars were to return to northern New York, he said, they would tend to migrate to the Adirondack foothills and areas surrounding the Park where deer are plentiful. “The protein is not in the High Peaks,” he said. “The protein is in the periphery of Glens Falls and Plattsburgh.”

The last wild cougar in the Adirondacks (apart from the one in 2010) was killed in 1894 in Herkimer County. Now the closest cougars to the west may be in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, although there’s no evidence of a breeding population. There’s also evidence that cougars are living northeast of the Adirondacks in Quebec and New Brunswick, according to the study “Genetic Confirmation of Cougars in Eastern Canada,” published in Northeastern Naturalist in 2013.

Between 2001 and 2012, researchers found nineteen positive identifications of cougars on thirty-eight scratch posts installed in national parks. Genetic testing revealed that some of the animals were from South America, suggesting they were released pets, but others originated in North America and could have been wild cougars from the West or from remnant populations in eastern Canada. Again, no evidence of a breeding population was found.

Cougars in the West faced the same hardships as those in the East when human settlers moved into their habitat.

But the populations in the West began to rebound in the 1960s and 1970s when they went from a species sought by bounty hunters to one protected by governments, according to the article “Cougars are Recolonizing the Midwest: Analysis of Cougar Confirmations During 1990-2008,” published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2012.

After the Black Hills population in South Dakota re-established itself in the 1990s, mountain lions recolonized the North Dakota Badlands and parts of Nebraska, according to the article. The authors found that the recolonization of the Midwest was taking place by “stepping-stone dispersers” – cougars that move from their place of origin to the nearest available habitat. In some cases, young males will travel greater distances.

John Davis, who heads the Wildlands Network’s Carnivore Recovery Program, said the cougar’s eastward migration has been slowed due to excessive hunting in Nebraska, South Dakota, and other states. In the Black Hills, fifty-three male and thirty-one female cougars were killed in 2014 – out of a population of just a few hundred.

“The likelihood of cougars recolonizing [the Adirondacks] on their own is not very good in the near term because they are being heavily persecuted in the Midwest,” said Davis, who lives in Essex. “They are basically being blocked from moving north out of southern Florida, the other nearest population, by the Caloosahatchee Channel. So natural recolonization of cougars in the near term unfortunately is not very likely. In the longer term, it may be possible.”

But Davis is committed to studying whether cougars and other carnivores will be able to return to the Adirondacks naturally and to figuring out what needs to be done to help them do so. In November, Davis organized the Eastern Carnivore Summit in Lake Placid at the Intervale Lowlands Nature Preserve, private property owned by Larry Master, a former chief zoologist with the Nature Conservancy and an Adirondack Explorer board member.

“It’s very clear we need to educate people clearly as wide as possible about the values of top carnivores—wolves, cougars, and lynx, in particular,” said Davis. “We need to show people these are not dangerous animals, and in fact they will make our forests healthier.”

Davis wants DEC to look at what can be done to help cougars, wolves, and lynx return to the Adirondacks, whether naturally or through a reintroduction. Besides public education, one idea is to improve and protect wildlife corridors that animals use to travel long distances.

Davis also would like to see these top carnivores included in DEC’s Wildlife Action Plan, the department’s guide to managing and conserving species and habitats. “To ignore them because they’re extirpated is a big mistake,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of science and research in recent decades showing that top carnivores are ecologically important.”

DEC’s Batcheller wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the Wildlife Action Plan, which was still being written, but he said the department has no plans to reintroduce cougars. He noted that a reintroduction would be costly and require the cooperation of neighboring states because the cats travel long distances.

“We just aren’t able to take this one on right now because it’s so huge,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity to deal with it, and it would take an awful lot of analysis and evaluation and public engagement before we even got out of the gate.”

Batcheller said DEC is monitoring the populations to the west and north and training staff to identify cougar sign and evaluate reports of sightings.

“Here’s the bottom line: if they come into New York and they become established, we’ll manage them as resident wildlife and, you know, learn what we can and manage them appropriately,” he said.

Photos: Above, a cougar in Montana; and below, a bobcat (photos by BigStockPhoto.com).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.


Mike Lynch

Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues.

Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine.

From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake.

Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at mike@adirondackexplorer.org.




30 Responses

  1. Davis Moquin says:

    On a related note, Susan Morse of Keeping Tracks will be speaking on the prospect of Cougars returning to the Northeast on Wednesday January 7th in Richmond Vermont.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    I wish the cougars luck and all other creatures who can figure out a way to live in the Adirondacks – including humans.
    I do sometimes wonder what it is about humans that causes some of us to want to kill anything that moves – including other humans.
    I understand killing to eat but killing just for killing is a problem we need to fix.

  3. Tim says:

    It would be neat to have cougars/mountain lions back in the ADK. But, careful what you wish for! I’ve seen numerous trailhead signs in California warning people to not let their small children stray far.

    • AG says:

      why would a responsible parent let their child stray far – even without cougars around?

      • Paul says:

        My parents were very irresponsible in that department. We were allowed to run all around the woods when we were little kids. But parents do keep their kids on a short leash these days. They do this despite the fact that the world is, statistically speaking, even more safe now then when I was a little kid.

        I think even in places where cougars are pretty well established attacks are very very rare.

        Never thought about it at all when I lived in Colorado.

        • AG says:

          Paul – well then your last comment means there is very little to worry about with cougars.. That and the evidence which shows about 1 attack per year in the entire country… Even less so – fatal. That means a child is much more likely to fall into a ditch or be hit by a car than be attacked by a cougar.

          • Paul says:

            I totally agree. That is why I said when I lived and hiked in areas with these cats I never gave it a thought. Danger to humans is a non-issue in my opinion. Danger to livestock? An argument could be made there. In places like the Adirondacks we are talking about cats living in very close proximity to agriculture. This is a very different “park” than a Yellowstone.

            • AG says:

              Oh ok… But I wouldn’t even compare it to Yellowstone… I mean cougars live in areas of South Florida – which is much more densely populated. They also live in the Los Angeles Area and San Francisco Bay Area. People’s worries make no sense.
              As to agriculture… They are not more of a “threat” than coyotes. As long as people take proper precautions – weather and dogs are more of a threat.

              • Paul says:

                true. if they make it back we will have to see what happens. coyotes do not need larger ungulates for prey. they do not kill cattle and sheep and goats if they have smaller prey to keep them fed. if the deer population was higher in the Adirondacks they might have a better chance. they might swing south where there are deer like crazy. that is probably a bad place for them to wander?

  4. Charlie Baudinet says:

    Regarding the last native cougar in the Adirondacks, I have read that one was killed near Elk Lake in 1908.

    • Scott van Laer scottvanlaer says:

      Ernie Hamner, employed as an observer on Boreas at the time and later a Forest Ranger at Lake Colden and Blue Ridge, was reported to have caught one in a trap in 1939 (Plattsburgh daily press 1-24-1939). I don’t know if the report is true but it did become part of his lore as a Forest Ranger.

  5. Kimberly Luke says:

    While living on route 352 along the east side of the Chemung River and between two mountains in the Southern Tier of NYS, I believe that I saw a cougar cross the road in front of me while driving one morning to work. It had the crouched and slinky silhouette of a giant cat roughly the scale of a very large dog and dark in color. I knew I had witnessed something special when I realized it had an extremely long tail that seemed to almost touch the ground. I contacted the closest DEC office I could find which I think was Avon, NY. I left a detailed message but never heard back from them.

    • Kim M. says:

      During the time when I lived in Columbia County, NY (2000-2002), I saw one cross the road in front of me. I mention it because the way I always described it is very similar to your description.
      I didn’t report it because I knew it would be discounted. But I know what I saw.
      Since then I’ve talked with other people who had similar sightings in Columbia County. There are plenty of deer there to support a population.

  6. Sarah Prince says:

    Will the Adirondack environment remain as suitable as it gets warmer? I think we’ll have more and bigger problems before the cougars are ready, such as forest and food crop pests, invasives from farther south and around the world. If we could stop fragmenting habitat and do anything to support resilient ecologies through the troubling times to come, those would be better investments of our energy than focus on individual species.

    • Paul says:

      They live in Florida so as long as they have things like sufficient prey the temperature isn’t much of an issue.

  7. Paul says:

    This story has some astonishing facts. This is the most interesting one.

    The same person sees a cougar in two completely different places separated by eight years.

    What are the statistical chances of that happening if there is only a few transient animals in the area? The chance of that happening seem almost infinitesimal.

    • AG says:

      I saw coyotes in the NYC suburbs and in NYC (the Bronx) itself well before the government admitting they were officially living there. Now you have close to 20 officially living in the Bronx.

      Likewise years ago my sister saw a bobcat 20 miles north of the city. The official rationale was it is too densely populated so close to the city. Now in the past 2 years they’ve gotten pictures of them only 10 miles north in Scarsdale and Arsdley. If they had “official, confirmed” pictures of two – that means there have been more.

  8. Tony DiChiro says:

    When I read this article it reminded me of the same situation several years ago here in the Ozark mountains of Missouri. We now have a verified population of these beautiful cats. You should chec the MSDC for more details of our journey. It is one of the best conservation magazines out there.

  9. Jesse B says:

    While this story is an interesting thought exercise, I think the quote by John Davis is most revealing in that while the Adirondacks are suitable habitat, there is little likelihood of a near-term population here. From the north, cougars are blocked by the St. Lawrence seaway and a heavily developed southern Ontario/Quebec. The southern Great Lakes are also developed and not a good corridor from Minnesota and UP Michigan. Hunting pressure from the Dakotas and Nebraska are reducing population epicenters (Black Hills, Badlands, and Sand Hills), while in Texas they can still be shot on sight. Even if individuals make it through (as they are slowly doing), the abundance of corn-fed mammals throughout the Midwest and forested land through Appalachia should provide ample territory to slow the expansion of any breeding populations.

    While fun to imagine a wild predator like cougars returning to the ADKS now, it’s best to focus on maintaining the Adirondacks as a functioning northern ecosystem, so the cougars will have a place to live if they make it here in 30 years.

    • AG says:

      While I certainly agree with the last comment – the first part isn’t entirely true… The governments of Ontario and Quebec have confirmed their presence. Though they say there is no official presence. Eastern Coyotes came down from Canada. There is no reason cougars can’t/or don’t do the same. The only issue is the females. Females don’t travel as far as males. To say there are too many obstacles coming from the north isn’t accurate. Breeding is a different story.

      • Jesse B says:

        I hear your argument AG, but conditions were a bit different back then. Coyotes populated NY state in the early 20th century when a) southern Canada was less developed, b) the St. Lawrence froze over frequently, and c) you didn’t have a highway system, which is a major barrier for predators. Also even if Ontario and Quebec have viable populations, a disparate low-density population will be less likely to migrate, especially across poorly suitable territory to reach northern NY/New England. The high density/restricted land area conditions in the Black Hills driving eastward migration simply don’t exist in Canada (at least at the moment). That’s why I believe that a northern route of natural migration is not likely in the near future.

        • AG says:

          How did the wild wolf shot near Lake George get to NY? Most likely it came from Canada. That was less than ten years ago. As long as animals are not shot – they can get almost anywhere – including over highways and through rivers. A few months ago – another cougar moved into the city of LA (there already one in Griffith Park. If it could cross a busy highway in greater Los Angeles – which is much more busy than any in upstate NY or southern Quebec and Ontario – there is no way they couldn’t/and don’t move down from Canada. Again – the only issue is females and a breeding population – which there is no record yet of in Ontario and Quebec. Dispersing males are not an issue already. The one from South Dakota that made it to CT is certainly not the only one.

  10. My sympathies to you Darcy Wiltse. Now that you’ve verbalized personal sightings of the elusive cat, you’ll join the growing group being poo-pooed by those who haven’t had the opportunity to catch sight of these beautiful creatures. Over more than sixty years of living on the east branch of the Au Sable River near Upper Jay, I personally have encountered four cats there and another one on Route 3 between Bloomingdale and Plattsburgh and another in Ticonderoga near the paper mill. But, there’s such a chorus of non-believers out there I continue to be doubted even though I lived in the ADK’s for 60 years and have the ability to distinguish one type cat from another.

    • Paul says:

      Frederick, with these multiple sightings you describe and Darcy has experienced there simply must be more cougars in the Adirondacks than a few transient animals. Given that it should be relatively easy (especially with game cameras etc.) to collect physical evidence of the animals. Why do you think there is almost none?

  11. Jesse B says:

    On a related note, the journal Science just published an article title ‘Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes.’ While you need a subscription to read the full text, an abstract can be found below. Basically the article found that for a number of large predators (wolves, brown bears, lynx, etc), they can effectively co-exist in moderate human dominated landscapes at a continental scale (much greater human densities than the US). This is in contrast to the North American model that separates predators and people (e.g. parks/preserves). They found the biggest challenges to success are a) building social acceptance in areas where animals were extirpated and b) re-teaching livestock protection tools.

    It would be interesting to see if the United States citizens would ever accept an integrated existence like this.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/346/6216/1517.abstract?sid=7f1e712e-d3e8-43a0-8649-32e324c49910

    • Chris says:

      US citizens already have accepted such a model, where cougar hunting was twice-banned by public referendum and which now has the lowest ratio of human/livestock cougar incidents, in the state with the most people and the most cougars: California.

  12. Ray says:

    People see what they want to see, especially in a one second glance.

  13. Scott says:

    I saw a cougar cross the road in front of my vehicle yesterday evening in Lake Luzerne. I have reported the siting to Cougar Watch and am awaiting a call back from the Wildlife Department at DEC in Warrensburg.

    Did not get a photo, as I was driving, and did not inspect the tracks left by the animal.

  14. Johnny Lutz says:

    Wild cougars have NEVER Left the Adirondacks, so there is NO need for them to be returning. Whoever came up with the idea, of wild cougars NOT inhabiting the Adirondacks anymore, is NOT playing with a full deck of cards. It FACT, they are NOT even playing with a pair of dueces.
    Wild cougars-pumas-mountain lions have been a major player in the Adirondacks and nearby forests for well over 250 years…since the days of early Hudson Bay Hunters, traveling south, into what is now New York.