Monday, October 28, 2019

NYS Endangered List Changes Would Remove Cougars, Wolves, More

bald eagleThe New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is planning to amend state regulations and designations for protecting endangered and threatened species across the state. DEC’s proposal would remove 19 species from the state’s endangered and threatened species list.

The Eastern cougar is proposed for removal from the list, due to its extinction in New York State. The grey wolf would also be removed, and renamed simply wolf, signifying new understandings of that species based on recent DNA studies.

Among species found in the Adirondacks that are being proposed for removal from the list are osprey and Cooper’s hawk. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles would be moved to “special concern,” on which list the common loon is also located. Spruce grouse would remain “endangered.”  Adirondack species being added to the list include American eel, Atlantic sturgeon, several species of mussels and other mollusks, several bats, and more.

What Listing Means

When a species is listed as threatened or endangered under New York State’s Endangered Species Law, the species is expected to be a priority for DEC monitoring and management programs and is protected through a permit requirement for projects likely to cause harm to these species.

DEC says it’s proposed changes are consistent with the New York State Wildlife Action Plan and is encouraging the public to review individual species assessments and help DEC identify any new sources of information that can help improve the decision-making process for High Priority Species of Greatest Conservation Need.

The changes come as the Administration of President Donald Trump has been rolling back protections for endangered species on the federal level and dismissing climate change, which has a significant impact on some species.

The 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services posits that roughly one million species of plants and animals face extinction caused by human impacts during the ongoing Halocene or Anthropocene extinction.

In the Pulitzer Prize winning The Sixth Extinction (2014) Elizabeth Kolbert reported that the peer reviewed science estimates flora and fauna losses by the end of this century to include 20 to 50 percent of all living species.

Eastern Cougars

The eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) has long been considered a subspecies of the North American cougar, but a recent genetic study found all North American subspecies to be a single subspecies (Culver et al. 2000), although some question about the true taxonomy remains (USFWS 2011).  Known by many common names, including puma, mountain lion, catamount, and panther, the eastern cougar once occurred from eastern Canada southward into Tennessee and South Carolina, where its range merged with the Florida panther (P. c.coryi).

The present distribution of the species in the United States is limited to the western states. Since the 1990s, five breeding colonies have been established east of the Rocky Mountains. Cougars from one of these, Black Hills, South Dakota, have been documented in Michigan and Minnesota as well as in Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri.

In the west, cougars are still quite common in areas of the Rocky Mountain states and in British Columbia as well as in Alberta, the Great Basin, Cascades and Sierra Nevada and have colonized urban-suburban-wildland habitats into Seattle, the Bay Area of California and Los Angeles.

With the exception of Florida, the cougar has been considered extirpated from east of the Mississippi River since 1900 (McCollough 2011). The Adirondacks were the final stronghold for cougars in the Northeast, with the last record in 1903 (Whitakerand Hamilton 1998).

An individual cougar that was previously verified in Wisconsin and Michigan was documented near Lake George in late 2010 and later killed by a car in Connecticut. Genetic testing indicated the animal was related to the Black Hills population.

The eastern cougar was listed as an endangered species in 1973 and a recovery plan was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1982. In 2011, the eastern cougar was declared extinct. Although many people report seeing cougars in the Adirondacks, and they are are the subject of conspiracy theories involving alleged cougar reintroduction by DEC, it is widely accepted by scientists that no native cougar population exists. (You can read more about cougars and the Adirondacks here).

Adirondack Wolves

Prior to the 19th century wolves ranged across most of North America and occurred in all of New England and in New York, but were extirpated from the Northeast by 1900. Estimates suggest significant suitable habitat currently exists in NY and New England (Mladenoff and Sickley 1998; Harrison and Chapin 1998).

The taxonomy of these animals and the species that inhabited NY, is far from settled (Wilson and Reeder 2005) with the potential for recent and/or ancient hybridization contributing to the lack of clarity (vonHoldt et al. 2016).

Two widely accepted descriptions based on morphology, or the study of the form and structure of specimens, (Hall 1981, Nowak and Federoff 1996) argued that the “eastern wolf” is a subspecies of Canis lupus, and that the “red wolf” is a distinct species, Canis rufus. Either or both may have been resident in NY in the past (Chambers et al 2012).

More recently, numerous molecular genetic studies have challenged these conclusions. Rutledge (2015) proposes the eastern wolf of Algonquin Park as a distinct species, Canis lycaon, but vonHoldt (2016) disagrees, finding that both eastern wolves and red wolves are admixtures of gray wolf and coyote.

The current New York endangered species regulations specify the gray wolf, Canis lupus. Wilson and Reeder (2005) proposed changing the common name from “gray wolf” (as identified in NY’s regulations) to “wolf”, a convention DEC has begun using. (You can read more about wolves and the Adirondacks here).

More Details About The Changes

A comparison document with details status changes can be found online here [pdf].

The full list of draft changes to the state endangered and threatened species listing can be found in the DEC pre-proposal on the DEC’s website. Public input is encouraged on the draft list changes before a formal proposal to revise the list is developed. Input that provides recent information that is not included within the Species Status Assessments is particularly sought.

Comments can be submitted until Dec. 24, 2019, by email to: wildliferegs@dec.ny.gov with “Endangered Species List” in the subject line or by mail to: Joe Racette, NYSDEC, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754.

DEC is also proposing a formal rulemaking to the existing endangered species regulations. Documents regarding this proposed regulation amendment are available on the DEC’s website (see “6 NYCRR Part 182”).

The public is encouraged to submit comments through close of business on Nov. 10, 2019. Comments must be submitted in writing to: Dan Rosenblatt, NYSDEC, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754 or e-mail comments to: wildliferegs@dec.ny.gov; subject line “Endangered Species Regulation.”

Photo of bald eagle provided by DEC.

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14 Responses

  1. Tom Vawter says:

    Nice, informative article on a technical subject. Thanks.

  2. Dean Percival says:

    If the definition will change from Grey Wolves to just Wolf then it seems to me that the coywolf should be protected as well. Coywolves are not ‘shy wolves’—they are coyote-wolf hybrids (with some dog mixed in) and now number in the millions. It is part eastern wolf, part western wolf, western coyote and with some dog.

    • Steve B. says:

      Coy-Wolves can exist on their own without any dog DNA. The eastern coyote’s are known to have a lot of wolf DNA in them. I think they have stopped referring to them as Coy anything.

      • Paul says:

        Whatever you want to call them there is plenty of “dog” DNA in there. These animals can interbreed. That means genetically they are very close. There are some alleles in a coyote that you won’t find in a dog and vice versa but that doesn’t mean they are not very closely related genetically.

        • Steve B. says:

          It’s interesting that the eastern coyotes are known to pack hunt, something the western cousins generally don’t do. Different and mixed DNA for sure.

        • Boreas says:

          Paul,

          If dogs, wolves, and coyotes can all interbreed, perhaps the general term “wild canid” would be a better term in the NE.

  3. Matthew Sedlak says:

    For the species that previously existed on the list and whose status has changed (page 8 on the mentioned comparison document), I count 27 species where the status has improved and 6 species where the status has worsened. Overall, this is good news!

    • geogymn says:

      There is some room from optimism. In my lifetime, down south of the blue line, I have witnessed the comeback of the raptors, the turkey, and the fisher.

      • Paul says:

        There is tons of room for optimism. When I was a kid growing up in the Adirondacks you never saw a bald eagle. Now I see them almost everyday in the summer. There was 1 breeding pair in NY in 1960. In 2017 we had 323. We have many more loons on the lake than we had back then too. You had to go off to a remote pond and have some luck to see one. Now they are swimming around right near town in Saranac Lake (studies show there are probably about 2000 loons now where we had 400 in the 70’s). Don’t like all the geese but what are you gonna do!

  4. carol says:

    I never trust DEC to do anything correctly, sorry.. I’m leery of their to hunt these animals. Definitely will look into it further and get more details… caution these attempts.

  5. carol says:

    Data from 2015? Am I already reading this correctly?

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