Tourism is a key business in the Adirondacks. About 12.4 % of local employment is tourism related, but only $2 out of every hundred spent on tourism in New York State ends up in the Adirondacks.
It’s often argued that Adirondack towns and villages, particularly those outside the High Peaks, Lake George and Old Forge areas, present a challenging environment in which to make a living.
Some folks say we should attract manufacturing, others see building more resorts or recreation facilities as the answer, but what about tapping into one of our most important natural resources: wildlife?
Wildlife as a Tourism Driver
Wildlife helps drive tourist revenue, and can help create hospitality and infrastructure support jobs. Take for example the experience of Yellowstone where wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s, not only to rewild Yellowstone, but also to try and better manage the exploding elk herds, and the ecosystem damage they were causing.
The result was an interesting economic development: in data gathered through surveys between 2004 and 2006, it turned out that a high percentage of Yellowstone visitors cited the possibility of seeing wolves as a major factor in visiting.
This translated into an estimated $35 million in extra annual dollars spent in the local economies of Gardiner, West Yellowstone, Silver Gate, Cooke City, and the other Montana and Wyoming towns which border Yellowstone. About 3.5% of Yellowstone visitors claimed they had come only to see wolves, and would have gone elsewhere (Banff, Denali, Algonquin, etc.) if there were no chance of seeing the iconic predator.
Here in the Adirondacks, the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST) promotes tourism to the traveling public and releases annual reports based on surveys of tourists who interact with the visitors’ center through walk-ins, call-ins, reach out and social media.
Hiking is the most popular reported outdoor activity, followed by canoeing and kayaking, skiing and snowboarding, and the ever more popular cycling. Curiously, the only mention of wildlife viewing in the survey are the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge’s “Wolf Walk”, where visitors learn about wolves.
What if ROOST could actively promote wildlife viewing? In the future it could be possible to see elk, wolves, or cougar, if such species were rewilded to the Adirondacks. Seeing such animals would be a remote possibility while hiking (wolves and cougar tend to flee), but a better possibility while canoeing (all mammals come to drink), and a still stronger possibility while simply driving (most wildlife sightings are of animals crossing roads).
What if this emphasis on wildlife tourism resulted in only a 10% increase in tourism? That would be over $16 million dollars, not including the tourists who are already more actively engaged with wildlife each year such as birders, hunters, and anglers.
In addition to the economic advantages of restoring wolves to Yellowstone, there are success stories about restoring elk to previous habitats where they were hunted-out before the advent of hunting management. In Kentucky and western Pennsylvania, where restoration has been so successful, elk have become an important tourist revenue factor, and controlled, seasonal hunting has resumed. Even here in the Adirondacks, the return of beaver, small numbers of moose, and some bird species have already brought new revenue to local coffers.
Restoring Adirondack Megafauna
While the increasing numbers of deer and black bear constitute Adirondack mega fauna today, in the not so distant past, the ecosystem of the “forever wild” Adirondacks supported wolves, cougars, lynx, wolverine, moose, elk and wood bison.
Today, moose, recovering from a history of unrestricted hunting, probably number a very sparse 800 to 1,000 animals in New York, and the DEC is engaged in surveys to get a better handle on moose numbers, and whether they are increasing or, following the current trend in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota and Montana, decreasing.
Studies indicate that potential wolf recovery areas include the Adirondacks and northern New England. At Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, we frequently receive photos of “Eastern Coyotes”, or what we call “coywolves” from Facebook followers, all asking whether these are “wolves”.
The coywolf is a wolf-coyote hybrid, and as the accompanying photograph from a trail cam at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge shows, coywolves are sometimes twice the size of western coyotes, and often difficult to distinguish from wolves, especially for a layman who sees one for only a few seconds.
The largest obstacle to wolves returning to the Adirondacks is relentless hunting and trapping of wolves in southern Quebec and Ontario. For our purposes, bolstering the Adirondacks as a place where visitors may see wolves, is it so critical what percentage “wolf” our wolves are, when few visitors can distinguish gray wolves from Canadian wolves from coywolves?
Wandering, transient male cougars occasionally pass through the Adirondacks, but there is no evidence of female cougars raising kittens and defending territories anywhere east of Missouri and the Michigan Upper Peninsula. Male cougars will set up territories when they have sufficient prey, which they have in the Adirondacks, and female cougars in territories overlapped by their territories. Unlike the confusion between coywolves and wolves, it’s less difficult to mistake a cougar for, say, a bobcat or lynx. Without reintroducing cougars to the Adirondacks, particularly females, it is unlikely we’ll have a breeding population in the Adirondacks.
Starting in 1893, more than 300 Rocky Mountain Elk were released in the Adirondacks over six years, but were extirpated by hunting, poaching and the expansion of white tailed deer, who passed brain worm and round worm to the elk. Other than that experience, mentions of elk are only found historically.
Wood Bison have probably been gone for over 200 years, and I don’t believe there have been any specific studies about whether the Adirondacks, logged, cleared, reforested and generally altered over time, would offer suitable browse for elk and grazing for bison.
Lynx are occasionally reported in New York, but as with cougar, there is no evidence yet of breeding and setting up territories, although Sue Morse of Keeping Track has encountered them in northern Vermont. Eighty lynx from northwest Canada were radio collared and released in the Adirondacks, over a three year period starting in 1989 and some dispersed up to 400 miles from the release areas. Unlike the bobcat, which has a more generalized prey base, and whose numbers continue to expand in the Adirondacks, lynx are specialized snowshoe hare predators.
Wolverine were last reported in New York in 1840, and their smaller cousins, fishers, are doing well here, and expanding their ranges in New York State. Previous reintroductions of mega fauna often suffered from lack of funding for follow up.
The Adirondacks, Yellowstone of the East?
The ecological benefit of returning a keystone predator to Yellowstone was to restore some natural balance, but politics is never far from any discussions about wildlife and sustainability. In the years since wolf reintroduction, anger over real and imagined consequences of wolves in ranching and hunting country, led state legislatures to cancel the thirty mile no-wolf-hunting buffer zone within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem around Yellowstone National Park, and since wolves don’t know where the park boundaries lie, their numbers in Yellowstone have been cut in half by hunting. The newly elected Congress is more likely to weaken the Endangered Species Act, as well as return more control over wildlife and natural resources to the states. In other words, the positive effects of wolves returning to the Yellowstone ecosystem have been seriously compromised, as has the chances of tourists seeing wolves in Yellowstone. That leaves the Adirondacks with a outstanding opportunity to capitalize
Does all this mean that we could turn the Adirondacks into the Yellowstone of the East, by rewilding mega fauna? Well, not exactly. From a wildlife perspective, much of the allure of Yellowstone is its wide open vistas, meaning it’s much easier to spot large animals, while the Adirondacks is more characterized by mixtures of thick conifer and deciduous forest. As in many forested wildlife environments, when you hike in the Adirondacks, critters tend to hear you, see you or smell you, and flee before your approach, which is why you’re more likely to see wildlife while canoeing, or surprise wildlife while driving.
There is a much better model for a rewilded Adirondacks, and that is Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, about two hundred ninety miles northwest of Lake Placid. Both parks are part of the Southern Canadian Shield, and are generally characterized as Eastern Boreal transition ecoregions. The Adirondacks has mountains, while Algonquin features rugged and rocky hills, but both have many lakes and waterways, and both are visually inspiring.
An Adirondack Opportunity
Algonquin forms a wildlife corridor with the Adirondacks, and comprises the northern end of an important gene exchange with the Adirondacks, mixing gene pools, as animals wander back and forth between ecosystems, just as the Adirondacks forms such a corridor with the Catskills and Appalachians. One of the most important challenges for parks and wildlife refuges is the dangers of genetic isolation, which impacts diversity within a species, or as we put it at the Refuge, “the key to wildlife survival is connected habitat”.
Algonquin has populations of Eastern Canadian wolves, deer, beaver, and may be the surest place in North America to see moose. Forty miles of Highway 60 runs through the southern end of the Algonquin Park, and is bordered by many bogs, beaver ponds and meadows, which attract moose at various times of year. Algonquin is also the only park I’ve visited, besides Yellowstone, where I’ve seen wolves multiple times.
Curiously, Highway 60 somewhat mirrors Route 3 in the Adirondacks. Picture, in particular, that sparsely populated, 40-mile long stretch of Route 3 between Tupper Lake and Star Lake, and like Highway 60, passes through areas where the forest is interrupted by lakes, bogs and beaver ponds, or the stretch between Paul Smith and Malone, or Tupper Lake and Old Forge.
The secret to successful wildlife tourism is often not only what you are very likely to see, but what you believe you may see. Imagine if we added to the various reasons to visit the Adirondacks, wildlife viewing, the outside chance of seeing a moose browsing in a beaver bog, or hearing a bull elk bugling in a meadow, or seeing a wolf or cougar crossing the road.
Even if we had cougar and wolf, the chances of seeing them in, say, the High Peaks area, would be very low, as there are fewer deer there, and too many people. If you’re staying at one of the large hotels in Lake Placid, where according to ROOST, most Essex County lodging dollars are spent, you may decide to take that picturesque drive from Saranac Lake through Tupper Lake and beyond.
What if you’re running a motel, inn or bed and breakfast in Tupper Lake, Cranberry Lake or Star Lake, and you add wildlife viewing to that list of amenities on Trip Advisor, Home Away or AirBnB, and feature photographs of wildlife taken by your guests? What if you are a hunting or fishing guide, and you’re operating in an increasingly wildlife rich Adirondacks?
A rewilded Adirondacks would have a major tourist advantage over Algonquin. While Algonquin is only about a four hour drive from Toronto and three hours from Ottawa, the Adirondacks is within driving range of the much more populous New York, Buffalo, Boston, Albany, Hartford, Burlington and Montreal metro areas, and has a more robust hospitality infrastructure. In addition, access to Algonquin is remote, and once you’re within 100 miles of the east or west gates, you’re on two lane roads.
There are a number of non-profits currently working on rewilding, with habitat specialists and biologists taking a fresh look at an old topic, because they have learned much more about our habitat and its carrying capacity for wildlife, and like many others, they view the preservation of the wild as a legacy and a duty. They also see what is happening on the Federal level, and are thinking this may be an opportunity for visionary business, civic and both state and local political leaders, to examine a potential broadening of the Adirondack economy, and step up to promote a real return to “Forever Wild”.
Photo of the wolf courtesy Julie Clark.