Eastern cougars were listed as Endangered Species in 1973, however in March 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced a change of status for the big cats when agency biologists requested cougars be removed from the Endangered Species list. However, the request was not celebrated as a success, since the change meant eastern cougar was officially declared extinct.
Although stories continued to circulate about cougars lurking about the Great North Woods, it was expected the official USF&W announcement would finally put an end to such unsubstantiated reports. Eventually, even the few remaining cats were eventually deemed ghosts when DNA analysis revealed the eastern cougar subspecies had actually been extinct in 1938, when the last wild cougar was taken in Maine.
Apparently, the announcement made it safe for people to again travel into the deeps woods. Safe travel was all but assured until an unusual event occurred in the winter of 2010, when a lone, male cougar established a den in the Adirondack mountains, near Bolton Landing, NY.
Coincidently, the big cat's den happened to be located in the backyard of a retired NYS Environmental Conservation Officer, who promptly notified the department’s biologists of his find. A decision was made to keep the entire incident under wraps, especially after the department had labeled a recent rash of cougar sightings as unsubstantiated.
Although scat and hair samples were eventually collected, the department made no attempt to place a radio collar on the animal. In fact, the department did not even acknowledge the presence of the cougar in their former employee’s backyard, since they certainly didn’t want visitors or sightseers snooping around and disturbing the animal.
In the spring of 2011, the young, lonely, love sick lion left its den to continue the search for a mate. Finally, after journeying over 1,500 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota, the story came to a tragic conclusion on the Wilbur Cross Parkway near Greenwich, Connecticut, when the long tailed cat was hit by a car and killed, on June 11, 2011. The incident continued to fuel further tales and it posed many questions. Although cougars were supposedly extirpated from the region by the late 1800’s, was this lone male specimen the only cougar that wandered through the Adirondacks over the last century?
The answer is, “Not very likely!” Especially if the question is posed to any of the many sportsman, hikers, skiers, paddlers and others who frequent the region’s vast backcountry.
Whether the question is posed in a local barroom, at the Post Office or at a Board Meeting, the mention of mountain lions will always get the stories flying. However, most of the biologists I’ve spoken with rank the odds of cougars establishing a naturally occurring breeding population in the Adirondacks to be about as likely as finding a Big Foot anywhere north of Fort Ann.
While rumors of big cats continue to thrive, the most commonly circulated conspiracy theory generally involves “an unknown environmental advocacy group from out of the state that has secretly been releasing cougars across the park with DEC’s approval. “ In order to spice things up a bit, the story occasionally includes details about the secretly released cougars being outfitted with radio collars, the possession of which brings serious penalties. The stories range somewhere between The Twilight Zone and The X Files on the scale of believability. They are simply too far fetched even for an old angler who’s prone to exaggeration.
While such tales of secret releases and radio collars are widely recognized as a hoax, a recent press release from the West Virginia based, Cougar Rewilding Foundation appears to blur the line between fact and fiction, especially since it comes from an ‘out of state, environmental advocacy group.”
The press release, which details research conducted by ecologist Dr. John Laundré’, a professor at SUNY Oswego is titled The Feasibility of the Northeastern USA Supporting the Return of Cougars. The study concludes that the Adirondack region is capable of supporting an estimated 150 to 350 wild cougars. Thirty years ago everyone thought cougars needed to live in the most remote places," explains Laundré in the release. “But they’ve demonstrated that they are as adaptable as coyotes."
Laundre’s research disputes a 1981 study that was conducted in the Adirondacks by SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry emeritus biologist, Dr. Rainer Brocke. Dr. Brocke headed up a similar restoration effort in the 1980’s. However, study determined that the density of both paved and dirt roads in the region would combine to thwart efforts to restock cougars in the Park. Dr. Brocke explained, “I was thinking of restoring cougars to the Adirondacks in 1983. The problem is they just can’t survive the proximity of homes, cars, and roads, the noise! He continued, “It just ain’t going to happen, the road density in the region makes it unfeasible, we would have fatal conflicts. It isn’t just the roads, it is the access they provide and the danger of vehicles and hunters.”
Brocke has solid, hands-on experience with such restoration efforts. He was responsible for similar efforts to reintroduce lynx to the region over two decades ago.
Researchers conducting similar studies of road density to determine a threshold for the feasibility of restoring wolves in Minnesota discovered a density of .96 miles of road per square mile of land were the absolute minimum standard. According to GIS data, the density of paved roads in the Adirondacks currently falls within this range. However, the data does not include many additional miles of private roads, dirt roads and seasonal use, or logging roads.
Brocke explained that Dr. Laundre’s study is based on western lands, which he believes are not comparable to eastern standards.
“You must understand the difference between eastern and western cougars is quite pronounced” Dr. Brocke revealed, “In the west, the animals can range on large blocks of land, which separate the towns. In the east, we have a fine grained landscape, with a density of roads. The Adirondacks are not a real wilderness; you can’t fly over it for five minutes and not see roads, and cars and groups of people. The western part of this country is just so much bigger.”
He continued to elaborate, “Cougar don’t care about scenery, or wilderness, they just want deer and they would likely move out of the Adirondacks to where the food is, on the periphery of the Park. Cougar are lone animals and they will keep wandering until they get to the edge of the range of another animal. They establish their territory against the range of another animal.”
Despite the obvious differences of opinion among researchers, Christopher Spatz, Executive Director of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation explained the organization’s primary objective.
“Our mission is to facilitate the recovery of cougar in suitable wild habitat east of the Rocky Mountains, and to promote the recovery of breeding populations through natural recolonization and mandated restorations in the central, southeastern and eastern United States. We also advocate for the responsible management of habitats where cougars are recovering."
“I think it would be really exciting to restore these big cats to their historic habitat, to make it whole again. Cougar are a missing piece of the puzzle, and I believe there is wide support for predator recovery. We’d like to talk about restoring the entire ecosystem, not just the cougar, we want all of the fauna and we need to engage all stakeholders in the process.”
For current information on the status of cougars in New York visit the department’s website at http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/44564.html
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.