The 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.
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).
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: [email protected] 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: [email protected]; subject line “Endangered Species Regulation.”
Photo of bald eagle provided by DEC.