Does the eastern cougar still exist? A few weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that it does not—a finding that’s unlikely to end the debate over whether cougars live in the Adirondacks.
Here’s another question: did the eastern cougar ever exist?
No one disputes that cougars once roamed the Adirondacks and the rest of the East. Indeed, the Fish and Wildlife Service report describes the cougar as “the most widely distributed land mammal in the New World.” The cats have adapted to a variety of habitats, including forests, swamps, deserts, and high mountains.
Years ago, scientists divided North American cougars into fifteen subspecies, but more recent research, based in part on DNA testing, suggests that all fifteen actually are the same subspecies.
Mark Dowling of the Cougar Network, a nonprofit research organization, said cougars spread throughout North America after the last ice age, some ten thousand years ago. “That’s not enough time for subspecies to develop,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that the new evidence raises doubts about the old taxonomy, but the feds have not yet abandoned it. “A complete subspecies analysis, including consideration of morphology, unique ecological settings and habitats, and geographic distinctiveness between populations, has not been conducted,” the service says on its website.
What’s the significance of the taxonomy to the Adirondacks?
Well, it’s difficult to reintroduce a subspecies that has gone extinct. But if all North American cougars belong to the same subspecies, then the “eastern” cougar isn’t extinct after all, just misnamed. And releasing “western” cougars in the Adirondacks or elsewhere in the East would not raise questions (and perhaps legal issues) about introducing subspecies where they haven’t existed.
Dowling and Christopher Spatz, president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, both believe that the Adirondacks contains enough habitat to support a cougar population—despite a 1981 study that concluded otherwise.
In that study, wildlife biologist Rainer Brocke contended that cougars could not survive in a region with the road density found in the Adirondacks. With so many roads crossing potential habitat, Brocke said, some cougars would be hit by cars and others would be shot by poachers with easy access to the cats’ territory.
But in the years since Brocke’s study, scientists have learned that cougars can survive in regions with similar or even greater road densities, according to John Laundre, a wildlife biologist associated with the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. Cougars have come back so strongly in the Black Hills of South Dakota, for example, that the state now allows them to be hunted.
Laundre, who teaches at SUNY Oswego, recently finished an analysis of the Adirondack Park and concluded that 57-79 percent of the land within the Blue Line is suitable cougar habitat. He believes the Adirondacks could support 190 to 390 cougars.
If the habitat exists, the political will does not. Neither the Fish and Wildlife Service nor the state Department of Environmental Conservation has any plans to reintroduce cougars to the Adirondacks. It’s just politically infeasible, given the fear of cougars. They do attack people, albeit rarely.
John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council, would like to see the cougars return on their own. “They belong in the Adirondacks as top predator,” he said. “We would like to see them come back, but we don’t believe it’s politically viable to advocate for their reintroduction.”
In recent years, western cougars have been migrating east. They have been seen as far east as Illinois (one was shot in Chicago) and Indiana. They might reach New York State someday, but it could take decades. Given the hodgepodge of wildlife regulations in the various states the cougars must cross to get here, it may not happen at all.
Spatz, of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, would like to see a dozen cats released in the Adirondacks. He said the experience of other states has shown that people can live with and manage cougar populations with little danger to the public. On average, he added, only one person is killed by a cougar every two years. Far more are killed by bee stings, lightning strikes, and deer-car collisions.
“They don’t usually attack us,” he said. “They try to flee up a tree.”
Illustration: Cougar Known Range and Confirmations according to The Cougar Network. Green = established populations; Blue = confirmation beyond reasonable doubt; Red = probable (very strong evidence); Yellow = claimed populations awaiting verification.
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.