Thursday, January 16, 2014

PROTECT Launches New Cougar Watch Project

CougarWatch-ArticleImageProtect the Adirondacks has launched a new project Cougar Watch to record public sightings of cougars (Puma concolor) in and around the Adirondack Park. There are regular reports of cougar sightings throughout the Adirondacks, but there has not been a publicly available repository to record these sightings. PROTECT will work to organize and map these reports and provide regular updates.

The purpose of the Cougar Watch project is two-fold. First, there continue to be regular reports of cougars across the Adirondacks. Jerry Jenkin’s Adirondack Atlas features a map of cougar sightings on page 51. PROTECT will manage a database about all reports made available to us. We will investigate sightings that include information, such as pictures, pictures of tracks, scat samples, etc. Second, if there is a cluster of reports in a specific geographic area, PROTECT will work with cougar experts to try and assess the presence of cougars.

A Long History of Cougar Sightings in the Adirondacks

The Cougar Watch project follows the work by a PROTECT Board member Peter O’Shea, who for many years recorded sightings of cougars in the Adirondacks. O’Shea is a well known naturalist and author. He was profiled in The New York Times in 2004 and in the Washington Post in 2005 about his stalwart work to record cougar sightings throughout the Adirondacks. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, O’Shea recorded hundreds of sightings of cougars (also called mountain lions or pumas) from hundreds of people and several times he even tracked cougars in the Adirondacks.

While there have been a number of reports over the years, they are believed to be transients or released captive animals. There is no evidence of a breeding population in the Adirondacks. Without evidence of a sustained local population, debate about the Park’s viability to support a cougar population has been ongoing. PROTECT profiled to work of Dr. John Laundre of SUNY Oswego who published an analysis about the viability of the Adirondacks to support cougars. Laundre published a book about the repopulating of cougars in the Midwest and makes the case they could return to the east.

How to Make a Report

Reports of cougar sightings can be submitted by using this form on the PROTECT website.

We ask that people have as much information as possible when making a report, including the date, time and location as well as any other information such as pictures, paw prints, print measurements, hair or scat samples, if available. Make sure to include all your contact information and tell us whether we can post your name/town as part of your report.

Cougar Watch will provide regular reports of sightings from around the Adirondacks in the years ahead.

How to Identify a Cougar

Bobcats are often mistakenly identified as cougars. The big difference is that cougars have long tails. Paw prints are similar to bobcats and lynx, yet the cougar prints are much bigger. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks put out a good publication about how to make a positive identification of a cougar. The Cougar Fund also has good information on cougar identification.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared cougars officially extinct in the eastern U.S. As such, any cougar in the east does not have Endangered Species Act protections. If cougars were to recolonize parts of the east or the Adirondacks and a breeding population was confirmed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have the evaluate protections at that time. Restoration remains the  objective of organizations such as the Cougar Rewilding Foundation.

Cougars number in the tens of thousands west of the Mississippi River and occupy almost all large mountainous areas in western states. There are an estimated 15,000 cougars in California alone. In recent years, cougars have naturally recolonized several parts of the west including the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Badlands of North Dakota, and the Pine Ridge area of western Nebraska. South Dakota has embarked upon a new hunting season for cougars this year, which is projected to decimate the nascent population.

A cougar population of around 150 has survived in Florida. It was successfully augmented recently with the introduction of males (from Texas) to help widen the gene pool. This population is a remnant population from a time when cougars thrived coast to coast. The Florida population is considered far beyond the reach of even the most freewheeling and well-traveled young male cougars to reach on their own, despite the great distances that cougars can roam. One cougar was recently documented as having traveled from South Dakota to Connecticut (where it was hit by a car). It was believed to have passed through the Adirondacks.

Here’s information from the Department of Environmental Conservation about cougars in New York. Here’s a public radio report on cougars in the Adirondacks.

The new issue of Northeastern Naturalist contains an article (abstract here) from a long-term study “to detect the presence of Puma concolor (Cougar) in eastern Canada.” The research team found “19 positive identifications of cougars in Québec and New Brunswick.” DNA investigations found that “some specimens were from South America, whereas others had a North American origin.” DNA of South American origin is generally dismissed as escaped pets. There have been reports of up to 1,000 cougars held in captivity east of the Mississippi River, some at licensed facilities, others as part of an illegal exotic animals trade.

PROTECT has recently submitted Freedom of Information requests to the Department of Environmental Conservation for reports of cougar sightings from the public.

A 2010 book The Emerging Cougar Chronicle provides information on the science behind the cougar’s rebound in many parts of the U.S. One chapter argues that the North American cougar is basically one animal from a genetics standpoint, which historically roamed from the east coast to the west coast.

Cougar Watch will provide regular reports of sightings from around the Adirondacks in the years ahead.

Related Stories

Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

19 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    And how is this part of protects mission?

    • Peter Bauer says:

      Wildlife protection has always been a core of PROTECT’s mission and vision statements (both on our website) and our day-to-day work. The Cougar Watch project follows recent work to oppose New York’s expanded bobcat hunting season and to oppose the federal Fish & Wildlife Service’s proposal to delist the gray wolf from protections under the Endangered Species Act.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    This might be a good idea but then again, it might be best for the cougars if they are here for people not to know they are here.
    Same goes for wolves.

  3. Paul says:

    With all the erroneous sightings and made up stuff this is going to be a particularly difficult, and probably pretty time consuming task for your staff.

    The focus should be on finding tracks. If there is only an occasional real sighting like we have now it is only of animals passing through like the one killed by a car in CT. I would assume the reason to have a “cougar watch” is to determine if there is anything more than just the passing animal. If we have more than just an occasional passing animal what you want evidence of is tracks. If they are hanging out (even just a few) there will still be a good amount of tracks.

    But having a “watch” for an animal that there is so far no evidence of any thing other than an occasional passing is tough.

    This is like having a watch set up for some exotic birds that very seldom pass through. But I guess if you do this for a few years and find that you have nothing other than an occasional passing animal it will confirm what we already expect is the case for these animals.

  4. Wren Hawk says:

    Kudos to Protect! for putting another information gathering program on the ground. I’ve always liked the data gathering projects that were a hallmark of the RCPA. I hope, down the road, Protect! can take the next step, perhaps build a wildlife sighting/monitoring citizen science program, bringing in Sue Morse, providing training for those interested and perhaps expanding its reach to wolves. But I understand that might be too much with a staff of one even with an active board.

  5. chuck samul says:

    i am all for good science, but why devote resources to this – there are also plenty of people who claim to have seen “Champy”.

    • Paul says:

      I tend to agree. This is not an animal that is going, it is gone. And unlike the moose there are not populations nearby that could facilitate a return. I don’t think there is any chance of re-establishing a breeding population when the only animals that might enter the area are just passing through. It is an interesting way to get info on the off chance that you catch the straggler coming through.

      But a “Cougar Watch” is cooler than something like an Elk Watch or some other similar kind of “boring” animal that once inhabited the area but is no more.

  6. Frank says:

    Should be concentrating on habitat protection. I guess mega fauna is a warm and fuzzy issue that keeps people’s attention which translates into donations so I guess it’s good in that respect.

  7. Mike says:

    Interesting that Protect is going to set up a watch for a species which according to the d.e.c is not in the Adirondacks, (despite all the sightings)

    What this points out is the disconnect between the state propaganda and reality… yes cougars, mountain lions, catamount whatever you call them are there, only the DEC would like you to believe otherwise. Why? Perhaps they haven’t figured out how they are going to manage a species that isn’t supposed to be there? And that they were not supposed to be there unless introduced through some misguided management plan ala the Western Wolves that have reduced the elk population by 80% in Yellowstone Park and are now expanding beyond the park boudaries to prey upon livestock(sound familiar? wolves are wolves) all in the name of a “balanced ecosystem”?

    In this case, the cougars have returned naturally to NY, just as they are present in Connecticut, where deer are abundant their favorite prey. Numerous sightings were reported over a period of years in CT, along with photos and tracks, yet the CT DEP said the same as the NY DEC, “no there are no cougars, but if by chance there are, they are pets that have been released”. Of course the now well documented road kill of a wild cougar that had traveled all the way from South Dakota proved that wrong. And yes there have been sightings since, and residents of CT are once again being told the same hogwash, it’s not a cougar, but if it is, it was a pet released into the wild.

    I have not seen a cougar in the Adirondacks, but I have seen what could only be a cougar kill. Oh shucks, I guess someone released another pet.

    • Paul says:

      It is interesting that we see Mt. Lions out west where there are far less people and far more land for them to cover. Yet here where there are roads all over the place and lots of people to spot them and cats confined to pretty small areas to be seen and we don’t see any?

      This program should prove it one way or the other. But I personally think we already know the answer.

  8. Chris says:

    With all due respect, the project is well-meant but doomed. Cougars betray their presence all the time.

    Incidental evidence of cougars – cats hit, treed, shot, and snared, photographed on random remote wildlife cameras, and wandering into towns and cities – occurs even in their lowest densities. The cat killed in CT left evidence across 5 states and 1500 miles.

    There is no objective reason why cougars leave incidental evidence everywhere but East of the Michigan Upper Peninsula.

    Incidental evidence appears without having to investigate a single sighting.

  9. Chris says:

    An inter-agency collaborative Adirondack Carnivore Study using cameras, track plates and scat analysis at 54 locations found no evidence of cougars.

    Had the CT cat found a female anywhere along his trek from South Dakota, including the Adirondacks, he would have stopped, mated with her and stayed to defend his territory.

  10. Deb Cha says:

    chrs, a problem with your logic is that very few people know or care anything about mountain lions. The sightings are usually fleeing. Reports by the public are discounted by officials who would be capable of collecting such evidence had they interest in doing so–but they don’t. I’m one of those lay people. I observed a dead animal on the side of a road. I did report. Besides the dispatching expressing her own interest, nothing was done. Nobody came along to collect scat, etc. I certainly would have stopped the care, blown off my meetings and stayed to collect pictures had I known anything about this controversy. When I called to report this dead thing on the side of the road, I asked the dispatcher what something like that could be. When she listed possibilities I laughed because the animals she was listing were one’s Id pretty much figured you could only see in a zoo or a safari in africal. So, there is no way i mistook a bobcat for a mountain lion, for example as I didn’t know what either looked like. Rather, I described what I saw. A red (like a deer or red cat) animal on its side, with a thick tail that did not taper, that went around the legs to about halfway the length of the torso, a round cat face-rounder than pictures I’ve since seen of adult ML:s. Black markings ona very round sweet fact-marking reminding me of a raccoon but clearly a cat face and no projection of the nose like you’d see for a raccoon. I notice black on the end of the tail but did not report it because I thought it was tar or gravel from the road mixed in or caught up with the fur. It was about the length and build of a great dane-except shorter. The fur was dense–not silky like a domestic cat. Like the hair on the tail did not lay as it does on a domestic cat but was more like a thick person rug that you could dig your fingers into. Same with the sense of the depth of the fur in general. The face seemed to have a double chin although maybe it had a collar or maybe the head was bent in a way that rustled up the fur under the chin to give it that look. Well I started to google for pics and information and then I learned a lot about the MLs. I fouund someone who had seen an adult (and posted about it) exactly one year earlier than I had seen this one that I now believe to have been an adolescent. but when I called it in initially, the dispatcher said she’d tell someone to fetch it. When I called back to find out what she saw, she said that she was so curious she went herself during her lunch hour but nothing was there. well that had to have been hours later. Why no interest? Why wouldn’t the officials have sent someone to investigate. Anyway, most people who first see ml are not knowledgable about them. When they contact officials they are put off or disregarded so no evidence is collected. I, for one, have found the situation very frustrating. I really could have cared less what it was, in the sense that I had no investment in it being a mountain lion. but it was clearly not a domestic cat, Maybe it was a huge very authentic looking stuffed mountain lion. It’s frustrating because other people had to have seen it. But, I have yet been able to find someone who did–some picked it up and somebody knows what it was.

  11. Chris says:


    While budget cuts have certainly curtailed investigations, game agencies will check out reports like yours. As I mentioned above, the cat killed in CT left evidence across 5 states and 1500 miles, including dash-cam pics, point & shoot pics, tracks, fur, deerkills, DNA, a body – evidence including NY. I don’t know which state you had your experience in, but state agency biologists were involved with confirming virtually all of his evidence.

    Again, there is no objective reason why people have only fleeting glimpses of cougars in the Daks and the rest of the East, when they get pics and video of them all the time everywhere else. Video like this one from Florida taken by a hunter with a cell phone camera:

    There are millions of hunters out there every year with cells phones, but we have no such cougar cell pics north of Florida and East of Indiana.

    Biologists don’t even need to investigate reports. Cougars betray their presence – and the public captures evidence of that presence – all the time.

  12. Chris says:

    My apologies. Wrong link, though the Tribune pic is now appearing on Craigslist purported to be from St. Lawrence county:

    Here’s the LA video:

  13. Don Merrill says:

    Here is an interview about the euthanizing of a cougar in Oregon a few days ago.

  14. Michael Hawkins says:

    The story about the mountain lion roaming from South Dakota to Connecticut needs further clarification. The DNA showed that this mountain lion was from the gene pool of the South Dakota mountain. It did not prove what generation it was. It could have been a cub of mountain lions originally from South Dakota who moved east over a generation or more. The stories in the popular press make it seem as if it traveled directly from South Dakota which may or may not be so.

    I have personally observed a mountain lion in 1999 in the Catskill Mountains in broad daylight crossing the highway only 100 feet in front of me. I also know three other people in the State that have personally observed mountain lions. I have no way or knowing whether they were released or not, but mountain lions are here in New York.

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