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From the Adirondack Explorer, March/April 2008, Page 41. This is a fine publication for all of you who love the Adirondacks or hope to become better acquainted with one of the premier wild areas in the East. You’ll find another article about cougars on their website, http://www.adirondackexplorer.org/. Please consider supporting them with your subscription.

Give the cougar a hand

BY CHRISTOPHER SPATZ AND JAY TISCHENDORF

The cat will come back.  The question is: Will we be ready?

Cougar, puma, panther, mountain lion–call it what you will–North America’s supreme feline is reclaiming its former eastern range. They have traversed the Great Plains and crossed the Mississippi River. Cougar tracks, fur and road kills have turned up in eastern Canada. Yet, another winter passes with no definitive proof-no pictures, prints or kills-that the long-tail stalks the Adirondacks. Despite a century of scattered sightings, the best scientific evidence suggests that the claim that a remnant cougar population inhabits the North Country is a wild dream.

If Puma concolor is to inhabit the Adirondacks again, it most likely will be via natural recolonization. In fact, it may only be a matter of time before cougars cross our border from Ontario or Quebec and make their way to the Adirondacks. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) needs to start thinking now about what it will do when that first cougar begins traveling up, say, the Raquette River basin, leaving a half-dozen signature deer kills along the way.

The Eastern Cougar Foundation (ECF) is working for the return of this apex predator to the remaining wild areas of its former range in the Midwest and East. Since we humans eradicated the cougar in most places, through predator persecution and habitat destruction, it’s only right that we help restore the species where feasible. And if the cougar were to come back on its own, we think the public would accept the introduction of a cat or two to help the recovery along. Otherwise, it could take decades before the cougars established a viable population on their own.

Granted, introducing even a few animals might be controversial in some quarters, but this is another area where DEC can help-by educating the public. Cougars rarely prey on people, but when they do, the attacks generate a lot of publicity and exaggerate the danger these cats pose to humans. In actuality, you’re more likely to get hit by lightning than get attacked by a cougar.  DEC can prepare the public for the cougar’s eventual return by disseminating accurate information now on its Web site and elsewhere.

The Adirondacks has abundant prey and ample habitat for cougars. An earlier study concluded that the region had too many roads for the cats to survive (cougars meet cars with alarming frequency), but more recent evidence suggests otherwise. The predators have recolonized South Dakota’s Black Hills, a region with a road density similar to that in the Adirondacks. The Black Hills, in fact, is one of the primary sources of dispersers migrating into the Midwest.

New York and the northern New England states, with their vast tracts of wild forest, represent perhaps the cougar’s best hope for recovery in the East. And it’s up to the states to act now. This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to remove the Eastern subspecies of the cougar from the federal endangered-species list. Not because the Eastern subspecies is no longer endangered. Rather, a genetically distinct Eastern subspecies likely never existed. Moreover, scientists have determined that all of the North American cougar’s subspecies are genetically one.

Evidence from eastern Canada is revealing some cats with Latin American DNA, descended from former captives. Federal and most state wildlife agencies have refused to protect cougars of Latin American origin, though they may be several generations removed from captivity. While the Eastern Cougar Foundation does not condone unsanctioned releases, any cougars scrappy enough to survive and breed in the wild, provided they behave themselves, deserve protection. Fortunately, New York’s endangered listing of the species Felis concolor (an earlier name for the updated Puma concolor) provides protection for every cougar subspecies, regardless of origin.

With federal protections removed, it will be up to forward-thinking state wildlife agencies, such as DEC, to develop plans to recover and protect the cougar should it return. So far, the states have done little to prepare. Few Northeastern biologists or wildlife managers have reacted to the cougar confirmations from Canada’s eastern Provinces.

Even if the federal government “delists” the cougar, the species will remain on New York’s endangered list. That offers protection from persecution, but it isn’t enough to ensure the cat’s recovery. If DEC is serious about helping the cougar, it should be paying closer attention to the cougar’s movements in the Midwest and Canada, educating the public and planning for that day when cougars do arrive.

DEC, of course, works for New York’s citizens. “Ultimately, the people will decide the cougar’s fate,” says Chris Bolgiano, one of the authors of Eastern Cougar: Historic Accounts, Scientific Investigations, and New Evidence. “We killed this native cat off. Now it’s up to us to rectify that destruction.”

Jay Tischendorf is president of the Eastern Cougar Foundation.
Christopher Spatz is a member of the board of directors of the foundation.

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