Big cats to return Northeast?
New York’s Adirondack Park is the largest protected wilderness area east of the Mississippi, containing more than six million acres, half constitutionally protected as a forest preserve, according to the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council. More than 50 species of mammals call the park their home, including predators such as black bears, coyotes and lynx.
If John Laundré, an adjunct professor at SUNY Oswego and vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, has his way, cougars will be added to that list– 350 of them.
“It’s a cougar paradise waiting to happen,” said Laundré at an April 30 lecture on the importance of apex predators and his plan for reintroduction.
Known as mountain lions, ghost cats, pumas, catamounts and panthers, cougars once ranged the entirety of North America and part of Western Canada. It is the largest feline predator in North America, weighing an average 140 pounds, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The Eastern cougar subspecies once lived in every eastern state, supported by a variety of habitats- including coastal marshes, mountains and forests, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
They became extirpated (locally extinct) due to widespread trapping and hunting by settlers, overkilling of their prey, and the loss of their home range due to deforestation to the point that they mostly vanished from the east by the early 1900s, according to Laundré.
Isolated cougar sightings and lack of a sufficient breeding population caused the USFW to declare the eastern cougar extinct March 2011. A move that is complicated by the differing beliefs in the scientific community, due to a number of people moving toward the conclusion that the Eastern cougar was mistakenly identified as a separate species, according to Felicity Barringer for The New York Times in March 2011.
Since the exodus of cougars from the east in the early 1900s, increased environmental awareness has returned the east to a viable location for cougars. “It’s been quite a few years. The Park has grown back, much of the east has grown back and much of the prey has come back. Deer now are fairly abundant through the state… and so the question becomes: Whether or not it’s possible to have mountain lions living in Adirondack Park today,” Laundré explained.
New knowledge, new theories
[gn_column size=”1-5″ last=”0″ style=”0″]Interested in learning more about the man behind the plan? Take a look here.[/gn_column]In his study “The feasibility of the north-eastern USA supporting the return of the cougar Puma Concolor,” published in Oryx, the international journal of conservation, Laundré found that Adirondack Park could support from 250 to 350 cougars.
One of the main causes for disbelief concerning cougar reintroduction to the Park is the human population near the park, and the density of roads that run through it. In his 1981 study, emeritus SUNY College of Environment and Forestry Professor Rainer Brocke found Adirondack Park not “wild enough” and hypothesized that the nearby human population would result in the extinction of the reintroduced group within 10 years, according to Laundré.
The predominating theory at the time was that cougars needed an area with a low concentration of humans and road density in order to survive.
“Unfortunately, his analysis was based upon what we thought we knew about cougars at the time. And at that time there had only been a couple studies on cougars, and because they had also been persecuted in the West, the only places that they were still found in numbers big enough to study were in very remote areas,” Laundré explained. Leading to the erroneous conclusion that cougars are animals of the wilderness and could not live in more developed areas.
Laundré’s study points out that modern cougars now live in areas with human and road densities “equal or higher to those in the Park.” Areas like the Black Hills of South Dakota, southern Florida, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Georgia, the Ozark National Forest and Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, both in western Arkansas. All of these locations are smaller in acreage, compared to the Adirondack Park.
This new knowledge allowed Laundré to include land in his calculations that Brocke’s paper had disregarded as being unlivable to cougars.
“Our current state of knowledge on cougars is that they are very adaptable to a lot of different environments, including human dominated ones. They are actually quite good neighbors, you rarely see them. The threat from cougars to humans is one of the lowest threats we face every day,” Laundré said.
At his April 30 lecture on his paper at SUNY Oswego, Laundre recalled in the 250-some cougars that he and his team collared for their nearly 20-year long study, not a single one threatened to attacked them. He even had a cougar fall asleep waiting for the team after being treed.
To combat the fact that cougars are known to take pets and livestock occasionally as prey, his study provides estimates of the maximum areas that cougars could use without coming into contact with humans. The two buffer distances of 300 and 500 meters (328 yards and 546 yards) factored into the final maximum number of cougars that Laundré believed could feasibly be supported by the Park’s ecosystem.
In his paper, Laundré states that Brocke’s and his own research indicate that there is estimated to be enough deer in Adirondack Park to support a cougar population. Only in a worst-case scenario, he writes, would a high density of cougars and a low density of deer result in a loss of more than 10 percent of the adult deer population.
But even Laundré’s worst-case scenario may turn out to be beneficial for the Park.
The Cougar Rewilding Foundation is a not-for-profit group that seeks to facilitate the recovery of cougar populations east of the Rocky Mountains. Christopher Spatz, president of the Foundation, believes that cougars should be reintroduced to the East because they are part of our natural heritage.
He also believes that they will halt the collapse that New York’s deciduous forests are experiencing due to deer over browsing. “They’re critical for functioning ecosystems,” Spatz said.
Sue Sabik, general curator at the Thompson Park Zoo in Watertown, which once had cougar cubs, asks: Why cougars? “There are other methods of deer control without putting predators at risk of being hit by a vehicle or shot out of fear,” Sabik said.
Laundré says that none of the methods humans have available right now are good enough at controlling the deer population. “Turns out that bringing deer back has been so successful that it’s actually ruining the ecosystems that they live in.” He believes that the hunting population, only 6 percent to 8 percent of people hunt, who then only hunt within certain seasons, is large enough to control a deer population that is growing out of hand.
These photos, taken from William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta’s article “Trophic cascades in Yellowstone: The first 15 years after wolf reintroduction,” were shown at Laundre’s April 30 lecture on the importance of apex predators.
Unchecked, deer can decimate the ecological variation in a given habitat, until only the hardiest plants survive. The photos above show how the environment at Yellowstone National Park rebounded once wolves inspired deer populations to keep to the edges of the forest, where it is safer.
How do we begin?
In response to the question what needs to change in order for rewilding efforts to begin (in conservational biology rewilding is the return of habitats to a natural state, including reintroducing once-native predators.) Spatz said that they have already begun. “John’s Adirondack habitat analysis started the discussion.”
A discussion in which The Adirondack Regional Tourism Council has not taken any particular stance, but Douglas Yu, a community manager at the council, offered his own opinion. “Protection of our natural resources is one of the reasons the Adirondacks exists as it does today- but that comes at a difficult balance between conservation and economic development,” Yu said.
The Wildlife Conservation Society fact sheet about the Park states that the ecological health of the Adirondacks depends on effective management and land-use planning that balances science-based conservation with local economic needs. More than 100 towns and forests are spread throughout the public and private lands that make up the park.
Recently, New York State has bought 9,300 acres of Adirondack land from The Nature Conservancy, out of a total of 69,000 acres of land to be added over the next five years to the Forest Preserve, according to an article written by Glenn Coin in the Post-Standard on April 23. The new land includes “180 miles of rivers and streams, 175 lakes and ponds, 465 miles of undeveloped shoreline along rivers, streams, lakes and ponds, and six mountains taller than 2,000 feet,” Coin wrote.
The inclusion of this land, should Laundré decide to reevaluate his study, could mean that even more cougars could be supported by the park.
“…more pressing” issues
“The Cougar proposal, while interesting, is not something that is going to become reality any time in the near future. Right now, issues like fish breeding and stocking, invasive species, commercial development, commercial use of timber, pollution, etc. are more pressing,” Yu said.
Invasive species are such a concern at Adirondack Park, that the Adirondack Park Agency, in conjunction with the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Paul Smiths College and the Franklin County Network of Shoreline Associations, created the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program in 2001. The purpose of APIPP is to monitor the aquatic ecosystems of the Park, and hopefully stop infestations of exotic plants and species before they start.
“And also, personally speaking, if there was a way to return to a time in the past, I suppose one where big wild cats roamed the Adirondacks sounds kind of cool,” Yu said.
Executive Director of the Extirpated Species Foundation Bob Long believes that early scientists were appropriate in organizing the cougars of the United States into geographical subspecies. He believes that reintroducing cougars from the west or south will destroy any remnants of the eastern subspecies. “The most likely source of cougars or reintroduction would be the western subspecies, which would hybridize with the native eastern species and the pure eastern panther would be lost forever,” Long said.
Likelihood of recovery
Spatz of the Rewilding Foundation disagrees. He believes that naturally, cougars in the ast have a slim to none chance of recovering. “The closest breeding populations are the Western prairie states and southern Florida, where the population is marooned by physical barriers. Twenty years of dispersal into the Midwest has yet to result in a female or kittens appearing there, and core populations are now being hunted so hard in the prairie states that fewer pioneers will be making it to the Midwest, let alone further east.”
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation fact sheet on the eastern cougar states that, “It is unlikely that any eastern state will reintroduce cougars; the required habitat is simply not available. Western cougars appear secure; the relatively vast amount of wilderness available to them will assure their continued survival.”
For the Syracuse Post-Standard on Jan. 11, DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino supplied the DEC’s response to Laundre’s study, reiterating that the DEC has no plans to reintroduce cougars as of yet. [gn_quote style=”1″]“Before any reintroduction program could be considered, a biological assessment of the success of such a reintroduction and a human dimensions survey to determine the public support for such a project would need to be completed,” Severino said.[/gn_quote]
To use the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone as a measuring stick, the cougar rewilding effort has a long way to go. According to a timeline created by the Western Kentucky University, the first interagency meeting concerning the reintroduction of wolves to the park was held in 1971. After decades of public review and red tape, 14 wolves were released into Yellowstone in 1994.
Spatz offers a simple timeline of cougar reintroduction: “Years.”
Laundré offers three separate possibilities. Active cougar reintroduction, where federal and state wildlife agencies place cougars into new habitats, or natural migration from populations in Florida or out west.[audio http://oswegonow.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/IMG_0004-2.mp3 ]
“If we address these issues in light of existing data rather than emotional rhetoric, there is a high probability that cougars could be successfully reintroduced to Adirondack State Park and other suitable areas in the eastern USA. What is not required is the will to bring them back,” Laundré wrote.