Monday, August 1, 2011

Will Cougars Return to the Adirondacks?

The news that a mountain lion killed on a Connecticut highway had migrated more than 1,500 miles from South Dakota raises an intriguing question: could the cats return to the Adirondacks someday?

The short answer: “someday” is a long way off.

Christopher Spatz, president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, said it took twenty years for cougars from the South Dakota’s Black Hills to establish a small population (thirteen adults) in the Nebraska panhandle—just 120 miles away.

“It might take them forty years to get to Minnesota,” he said. “If you project that eastward, you’re talking a century before they get to the Adirondacks.”
Spatz said they may not get here at all if Midwestern states fail to protect the species. He noted that South Dakota expanded its hunting season on cougars last year—a policy sure to impede their eastern migration.

The main reason it takes so long for breeding populations to establish themselves is that female cougars tend not to wander great distances from their home ground. “The young males can go far, but females don’t,” Spatz said.

The cougar hit by a car in Connecticut was a healthy young male, thought to be two to five years old. It weighed 140 pounds, about average for an adult male. Genetic tests revealed that it probably came from a population in the Black Hills. The tests also revealed its DNA matched that of a cougar whose movements were tracked in Minnesota and Wisconsin in late 2009 and 2010. The earlier DNA samples were obtained from scat, blood, and hair samples.

Paul Rego, a Connecticut wildlife biologist, said the cougar likely traversed the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and entered Ontario. At some point, it headed south. It’s possible that the cougar traveled through the Adirondacks and other parts of New York State, although there were no confirmed sightings of the animal, according to Lori Severino, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Conservation.

DEC has long dismissed most reports of cougar sightings in the Adirondacks (and elsewhere in the state) as cases of mistaken identity. In the instances in which a cougar really was seen, the agency has insisted it must have been a captive animal that escaped or was released. Notwithstanding the Connecticut cougar, Severino said, DEC’s position has not changed.

Although cougars once lived in the Adirondacks, state biologists say they have been extirpated since the nineteenth century. But many people, such as Peter O’Shea, an animal tracker, insist that the Park still harbors a small population of cougars.

The Cougar Rewilding Foundation agrees with DEC that the cats no longer exist in the Adirondacks—or anywhere in the East outside southern Florida. The group advocates reintroducing cougars into New York and other states. Spatz said about twenty cougars would be sufficient to start a viable population in the Adirondacks.

In the current issue of the Adirondack Explorer, wildlife biologist Rainer Brocke contends that the Adirondack Park doesn’t have enough roadless habitat to support a cougar population. Given the region’s road density, he says, too many animals would be hit by cars or shot by poachers. Yet John Laundre, a biologist affiliated with the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, contends that Brocke’s research is out of date. Laundre estimates that the Park can support 190 to 390 cougars. His rebuttal to Brocke will appear in the September/October issue of the Explorer.

Spatz contends that cougars are needed to restore “ecological balance” to the Park and keep white-tailed deer from overbrowsing woodlands. When deer must be on guard for cougars (or other predators, such as wolves), he said, they keep on the move rather than stay in one place until they’ve sated themselves on vegetation. “The cougars wouldn’t bring the [deer] population down so much as move them around and change their browsing behavior,” he said.

DEC, however, has no interest in bringing back cougars.

“The occurrence of one individual animal possibly wandering across New York State does not provide any new evidence or reason to believe that New York’s landscape can support a population or that the public would favor this happening,” Severino said. “At this time, DEC has no plans to assess the feasibility or desirability of re-establishing mountain lions in New York.”

Most observers assume that any proposal to reintroduce cougars to the Adirondacks would meet fierce resistance. Spatz, however, questions the conventional wisdom. Polls show that the public favors the reintroduction of predators into the wild, he said. Moreover, he said cougars pose little threat to humans. Although cougars occasionally kill a person—on average, once every two years—they evolved to hunt deer and so shy away from people, according to Spatz.

“You’ve got thirty thousand cougars out west,” he said. “There would be hundreds of incidents [of attack] every single week if we were on their menu.”

Spatz said the experience of other states shows that people can learn to live with cougars. But learning to live with them and choosing to live with them are different things. Do you think cougars should be reintroduced in the Adirondacks?

Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Department of Energy and the Environment.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

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