“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.
“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.