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September 21, 2023 | By:

Carnivore Reintroductions — Before, During, and After; Variables and Case Studies to Consider for the Northeastern U.S. (Part 3)

cougar © Tom & Pat Leeson (leesonphoto.com)

© Tom & Pat Leeson (leesonphoto.com)

The following article is the third of a three-part series (see Part 1 and Part 2), an adaptation of a presentation the author gave at the Northeast Natural History Conference in Burlington, Vermont, Earth Day weekend, 2023. Note: “Before, During, and After” refers to both 1) phases during species reintroduction programs in the United States that are executed, underway, and currently considered, as well as 2) phases of a hypothetical puma (Puma concolor) reintroduction program needed for puma recovery in the Northeast. References follow the article.

Part 3

The ecological effects of reintroducing puma (Puma concolor) to the Northeast, where the species has been extirpated for roughly 100 years, along with its apex carnivore guild member the gray wolf (Canis lupus), could be substantial. The ecological effects of a reintroduced puma population establishing, and becoming self-sustaining — it could be hypothesized — would be substantial, and beneficial, for biodiversity and ecosystem restoration. The primary ecosystem to benefit in the Northeast is forest, and successional seres thereof, leading theoretically to historic climax communities depending on the viability of seedbeds, and invasive species impacts.

Black bear (Ursus americanus), a fellow apex carnivore guild member taxonomically, but less so functionally, was never extirpated from the Northeast1,2,3,4,5.6. State populations dwindled during the same era of puma and wolf eradication, but populations persisted in patches of forest uncut for agriculture, and at higher elevations, sufficiently enough to enable population recovery as forests regenerated and wildlife managers alleviated heavy persecution. Black bear diet and life history, however, have remained divergent during this period; its recovery in northeastern states has not filled the ecological gap that puma and wolf eradication created. An omnivorous carnivore that selects foods seasonally and feeds mostly on plant matter7, and also hibernates 3-7 months a year7, the black bear has not filled the niche the puma occupied as an obligate carnivore, nor that of the gray wolf which will eat some fruit, like many canines, but is primarily an opportunistic and adept pack hunter of ungulates7. The trophic cascades then, of puma reintroduction to the Northeast, are likely to be substantial and ecologically restorative, as the linkage between puma as predator, and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) as prey, heals.

The swollen population of white-tailed deer throughout the Northeast, and eastern U.S. overall, is well known. With their larger-bodied natural predators gone for generations, and the regrowth of some forest cover as the agriculture industry evolved from smaller farms and more local economies to more industrialized operations during the last rough century, deer populations grew. Even with land conversion associated with human population growth, and its value as a game species to hunters, present-day hunting pressure and disease do not keep white-tailed deer at or below carrying capacity on the landscape scale. This native cervid thrives in edge habitat, tolerates human proximity, and moreso: can lose its fear of humans completely. Ecological consequences of deer overabundance include suppressed regeneration of native plant species consumed by deer; biodiversity reduction as deer simplify forest structure through overbrowsing and open niches for exotic species to invade; and the emergence and spread of zoonotic, tick-borne diseases; to name a few.

With these ecological dynamics known well in academic, managerial, and scientific arenas, which overlap to high degree, a review of forestry and wildlife planning documents for the Northeast can provide perspective on the degree to which government agencies understand the role apex carnivores play in ecosystem regulation. Forest and wildlife species, and their species complexes or communities, are commonly referred to as “natural resources”. Agencies tasked with managing them, i.e. with stewarding the public’s natural heritage, write planning documents that reflect what agencies address — or teach, and how they apply their understanding to stewardship decisions. I performed keyword and roots-of-word searches using “deer”, “overabundan”, “browse”, and “regenerat” in the Forest Action Plans (FAP) of New York (NY)8, Vermont (VT)9, New Hampshire (NH)10, and Maine (ME)11 to investigate the messaging of and management approach to state-level forest stewardship given chronic, long-term puma and gray wolf absence. These four states are the largest of the Northeast regarding land mass (data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2020 statistics) and have the greatest percent forest cover (data from U.S. Forest Service, 2019-2020 statistics), a coarse proxy for potential puma habitat for the purposes of this article. States and the District of Columbia create FAPs every 10 years to report their forest conditions and declare priorities and strategies to the U.S. Forest Service to access federal funding.

NY’s FAP has a section entitled “Deer Browse” which is brief, but good. It discusses socioeconomic changes over many decades as a context for deer population status, also “a lack of natural predators such as cougars and wolves” factoring in to deer overabundance, and it provides examples of negative ecological ripple effects through woodlands among other brief points. VT’s FAP discusses compromised forest regeneration, but identifies the drivers as non-native and invasive plant species; it does not discuss deer abundance. NH’s FAP declares a broad goal to “minimize impacts to forests from damage-causing agents including… wildlife browse” among other agents. It also refers to biodiversity in other goals, but it does not detail deer-specific strategies to manage for biodiversity when discussing them. “Protect established regeneration from herbivory with techniques such as ‘slash walls’ or fencing” is listed, but herbivory by deer, or explicit deer control strategies, are not. ME’s FAP emphasizes the change of ME’s forest composition since the era of European immigration, including what that era brought such as “timber wolf” eradication, invasive invertebrates, and disease-causing organisms. It also makes a dated, muted reference to deer abundance potentially influencing forest composition.

I also searched the Wildlife Action Plans (WAP) for these same four northeastern states. Like FAPs, WAPs are written for 10-year horizons as well, and are how state wildlife agencies access financial support from the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A big takeaway from NY’s WAP12 is NY acknowledges “cougar”, along with Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) and wolf, as extirpated. However, it categorizes them as “Non-Species of Greatest Conservation Need”, and allocates no resources for their recovery as such. Big takeaways for VT include its stewardship concept of Conservation Design, meaning “maintaining and enhancing an ecologically functional landscape”, and its recognition of deer overabundance, but VT stresses hunting is the tool to fix it13. NH states generally in its WAP: “Responsible management of herbivores (such as deer) can help maintain plant and animal biodiversity… Statewide and site-specific plans should be developed to control overpopulated wildlife…” NH does not make explicit what those conservation actions to control deer should or could be14. ME to its credit makes clear, transparent declarations in its WAP regarding definitions of Species of Greatest Conservation Need and their qualifications; it makes clear only species ranked as Priorities 1-3 can be eligible for State Wildlife Grant (SWG, i.e. congressionally allocated) funding. In its opening passage on Designation Criteria, the WAP explains “only Maine extant species were considered for designation as SGCN in 2015”. ME, therefore, did not consider species eradicated by 2015 to be SGCN, which also meant ME would use no SWG funds for their recovery. Further refining and declaring its stewardship approach, ME declares “Priority 1 designation is not intended for: species that have expanded their range into ME within the past 50 years, or species with only historic documentation (generally prior to mid-1970s)”15. Puma, having been eradicated from ME for over 50 years, were, in practical terms, even less important to ME’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife during WAP creation than species more recently eradicated.

All four of these state WAPs are due to be rewritten and republished by 2025. WAPs are large documents; generating them is a substantial undertaking. The current time, Summer 2023, is an opportunistic one for fresh thinking and collaboration about apex carnivore conservation and ecosystem stewardship across the Northeast. The time is opportunistic and ripe for bold but reasoned action for species and ecosystem recovery as states plan their wildlife stewardship priorities toward 2035.

Ecological effects of puma reintroduction, such as trophic cascades discussed above, can also include socio-ecological cascades, the term used by a western team of scientists who, in 2017, reported a pioneering valuation of an ecosystem service provided by a large carnivore’s recovery via model simulation16. The team simulated puma recovery in the eastern U.S. to investigate a potential reduction in white-tailed deer-vehicle collisions, and it tested model outputs using real-world data from the puma population that recolonized South Dakota in the 1990s. Gilbert et al., the western team, found puma could reduce deer densities and deer-vehicle collisions by 22% in the eastern U.S., preventing deaths, injuries, and billions of dollars of costs (an economic component of their research, qualifying it as social science as well) over 30 years of puma population establishment. John Laundré, PhD and Christopher Spatz, when representing the non-profit the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, published a white paper through its online portal in 2015 proposing a “Yellowstone East” for the Adirondack region of NY State, making a fortified economic argument for reintroducing bison (Bison bison), elk (Cervus canadensis), puma, and wolves to the Adirondack Park17. They drew on wildlife tourism data from within the U.S., and habitat and coexistence metrics from both the U.S. and European nations with wolves. The authors estimated hundreds of thousands of additional visitors would travel to the Adirondacks to view restored fauna. They estimated the same in millions of dollars for new tourism revenue. They estimated thousands of jobs could be created to support new wildlife tourism, and millions of dollars could be generated for local and state tax revenue.

As mentioned in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, a serious consideration of puma reintroduction to the Northeast would occur in the public realm — indeed this has already begun — and formal stakeholder deliberation of reintroduction could be politically substantial, and unique to each state. One topic to debate in advance of reintroduction could be proactive management techniques employed to minimize and mitigate potential depredation of farmed animals. State wildlife agencies could play a powerful role in civic engagement and leadership while also growing the skill sets and ecological expertise of their staff as they approach conservation of a reintroduced apex carnivore. John Linnell, PhD, a well-known wildlife biologist based in Norway who focuses on large carnivores and herbivores, published a book chapter on mitigation methods for carnivore depredation with co-authors John Odden and Annette Mertens in 201218. The team asserted livestock producers “must accept they have a responsibility to protect their flocks” given carnivore presence is natural, but they also stressed the common sociopolitical component of support for the industry (their scope was world-wide). Given this, they presented four systems of financial assistance for producers to buttress them in the economic context of depredation. Briefly, these were in-kind incentives to adopt carnivore-compatible husbandry, a system made more democratic with a cost-share requirement, and more robust with post-implementation assessments by qualified personnel. Cash incentives for proven carnivore presence and tolerance is another system. A third is an insurance system recognizing the inherent risk of natural carnivore presence; producers would pay premiums, or cost-share them if subsidized. Fourth is payments for losses. The authors expressed their desire for the establishment (and implied enforcement) of minimum standards for husbandry practices should producers receive compensation for losses, in addition to trained inspectors evaluating depredation claims, and a deductible to go along with premium payments in an insurance system. The authors also recommended strongly that for depredation mitigation to be incorporated into agriculture policy, a regulatory emphasis on livestock husbandry practices aimed at reducing a given carnivore’s ability to “attack and kill livestock” was the most effective mitigation strategy. They felt these techniques also encourage carnivore conservation, address animal welfare issues, and catalyze job satisfaction for producers.

Jennifer Miller, PhD, also a well-known and rising figure in carnivore conservation, led a team at Yale University to search peer-reviewed livestock depredation mitigation literature to assess the relative effectiveness of techniques, and evaluate the context of their use19. Together they developed a metric that standardized the magnitude of change before and after technique application which allowed different techniques to be compared. Sixty-six studies matched their inclusion criteria, all published between 1980-2014, and two studies allowed for correlation analysis involving puma and husbandry variables. Puma were both positively and negatively associated with number or density of livestock. They were positively associated with calving season, they were negatively associated with distance to cover, and they were positively associated with amount of vegetation. This useful paper reported several techniques that provided great effectiveness (≥50% difference) across multiple studies, but duration of effectiveness varied and waned through time. The team also reported biases in their dataset and called for funding and policy initiatives for greater and more representative research to fill knowledge gaps, and to improve the efficacy of large carnivore depredation management techniques.

Beyond reintroduction debate and implementation of depredation mitigation strategies, state wildlife agencies have a multitude of tools and techniques to teach their constituents about puma ecology and to encourage coexistence. Wildlife education and outreach is a strong component of wildlife agency operations. Agencies commonly have both education and communications staff, and they communicate methodically with the public by issuing press releases, through a public information officer for instance. From well-designed informational brochures (California, Oregon) to puma/panther crossing road signs (Florida), from permanent signage at trailheads alerting the public to large carnivore presence (Washington), to ever-increasing digital means to communicate puma ecology and coexistence content, northeastern state wildlife agencies have the capacity to teach about and support ecosystem restoration through puma reintroduction. After even a year or two post-release, if the reintroduced population shows signs of establishment, content and curricula could be tailored to the highly valuable ecological data reflecting local puma behavior collected in initial years of the reintroduction. Content could include habitat preferences for example, and temporal activity patterns as puma adjust to their new, albeit native range.

To conclude with some key considerations, as citizens of the U.S. increasingly ponder and work for puma reintroduction to the Northeast, let’s remember the following: #1) The puma is not a federally listed endangered species. The Florida panther (P.c. coryi) is as a recognized, isolated subspecies. #2) Citizens need to present the arguments for puma reintroduction to wildlife authorities, and advocate for this cause to advance it. Wildlife authorities on the state and federal level have not and are not leading to restore the Northeast’s native apex carnivore guild. Doing so now as WAPs undergo revision across the region is timely. #3) Political tools citizens have to influence, and outright change or make policy and legislation, vary across states. While Colorado has a truly democratic legislative mechanism for citizens to drive change, which enabled its electorate to successfully demand the reintroduction of gray wolves, only ME, of the four northeastern states I focused on, empowers its electorate in similar fashion20. ME citizens can initiate indirect state statutes and veto referenda. (Indirect initiatives necessitate state legislature involvement, but if the state legislature fails to vote on an initiative, or rejects it, the initiative becomes a ballot measure for voters21.) In NH, VT, and NY, citizens do not have the power to initiate ballot measures at the state level22,23,24. Citizens of these three states must engage government agencies and political leaders to work with and through them while advocating for change such as puma reintroduction.

Sixteen U.S. states have breeding populations of puma today25. Using 2020 Census data, this sums to 130,710,867 people, or 39.4% of our national population. Nearly 40% of our country coexists with puma already. The Northeast can grow that number. Not only can citizens restore a persecuted, misunderstood species intentionally driven to extinction generations ago, we can steward our forested landscape far more responsibly by reintroducing puma. The ecological benefits can ripple all the way through global warming pathways by puma reducing browse pressure from overabundant deer, thereby allowing for greater species richness to recover, for structural complexity to improve, and plant biomass accumulation to rebound to sequester more atmospheric carbon.

Our Earth needs stronger, more diverse ecological webs for a healthier biosphere. Our biosphere needs the webs that evolved for 3.7 billion years to support our planet’s resiliency, and humankind’s persistence. It needs its cats, and wolves, its polar bears, and its sharks. And they deserve responsible, humane stewardship. So do we.

“Mountain lions belong here. Let’s bring ‘em home.” SM   ~ Northeastern Puma Project (northeasternpumaproject.net)

Part 3 concludes this series. 

cougar © Larry Master (masterimages.org)

© Larry Master (masterimages.org)

Literature Cited

1 McLaughlin, C.R. 1999. Black Bear Assessment and Strategic Plan 1999. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Bangor, ME. 136pp.

2 Timmins, A.A. 2014. New Hampshire Black Bear Assessment 2015. New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Concord, NH. 136pp.

3 Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. 2021. Big Game Management Plan 2020-2030. Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, Montpelier, VT. 75pp.

4 Bureau of Wildlife Black Bear Management Team. 2007. Black Bears in New York: Natural History, Range, and Interactions with People, 2nd Ed. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Marine Resources; Albany, NY. 24pp.

5 MassBears [Amherst College; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife; U.S. Geological Survey]. 2019. Black Bears in Massachusetts. https://massbears.wordpress.amherst.edu/about-the-project/black-bears-in-massachusetts/. Accessed Summer 2023.

6 New Jersey Office of Administrative Law. 2015. Section 7:25-5.6 Black bear (Ursus americanus), Bobcat (Felis rufus). New Jersey Register 47(22), 16 November 2015. 62pp.

7 Hunter, L. 2011. Carnivores of the World. Princeton Field Guides, Princeton University Press. 240pp.

8 New York Department of Environmental Conservation. 2020 New York Forest Action Plan. New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, NY. 128pp.

9 Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, Division of Forests. 2017. Vermont Forest Action Plan. Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, Montpelier, VT. 246pp.

10 New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Forests and Lands. 2020. Forest Action Plan. New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Forests and Lands, Concord, NH. 244pp.

11 Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Maine Forest Service. 2020. Maine Forest Action Plan. Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Maine Forest Service, Augusta, ME. 171pp.

12 New York Department of Environmental Conservation. 2015 New York Wildlife Action Plan. New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, NY. 107pp.

13 Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. 2015. Vermont Wildlife Action Plan. Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. Montpelier, VT. 1,502pp.

14 New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. 2015. New Hampshire Wildlife Action Plan, Revised Edition. New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, Concord, NH. 1,684pp.

15 Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. 2015. Maine’s Wildlife Action Plan. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Augusta, ME. 382pp.

16 Gilbert, S.L., K.J. Sivy, C.B. Pozzanghera, A. DuBour, K. Overduijn, M.M. Smith, J. Zhou, J.M. Little, and L. Prugh. 2017. Socioeconomic Benefits of Large Carnivore Recolonization through Reduced Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions. Conservation Letters, 10(4):431-499.

17 Laundré, J. and C. Spatz, 2015. Yellowstone East: The Economic Benefits of Restoring the Adirondack Ecosystem with Native Wildlife. Cougar Rewilding Foundation. https://us5.campaign-archive.com/?u=2c2c8cf3bcd76e459d327b65f&id=40e2c61682&e=[UNIQID]. Accessed Spring 2023.

18 Linnell, J.D.C., J. Odden, and A.Mertens. 2012. Mitigation Methods for Conflict Associated with Carnivore Depredation on Livestock in Carnivore Ecology and Conservation, A Handbook of Techniques (pp314-332). L. Boitani and R.A. Powell (Eds.). Oxford University Press.

19 Miller, J.B., K.J. Stoner, M.R. Cejtin, T.K. Meyer, A.D. Middleton, and O.J. Schmitz. 2016. Effectiveness of Contemporary Techniques for Reducing Livestock Depredations by Large Carnivores. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 40(4):806-815.

20 Ballotpedia. 2023. Types of Ballot Measures in Maine. https://ballotpedia.org/Types_of_ballot_measures_in_Maine. Accessed Summer 2023.

21 Ballotpedia. 2023. Indirect Initiated State Statute. https://ballotpedia.org/Indirect_initiated_state_statute.  Accessed Summer 2023. 

22 Ballotpedia. 2023. Types of Ballot Measures in New Hampshire. https://ballotpedia.org/Types_of_ballot_measures_in_New_Hampshire. Accessed Summer 2023.

23 Ballotpedia. 2023. Types of Ballot Measures in Vermont. https://ballotpedia.org/Types_of_ballot_measures_in_Vermont. Accessed Summer 2023.

24 Ballotpedia. 2023. Types of Ballot Measures in New York. https://ballotpedia.org/Types_of_ballot_measures_in_New_York. Accessed Summer 2023.

25 The Cougar Fund. 2023. State by State. https://cougarfund.org/our-work/advocacy/state-by-state/. Accessed Spring 2023.

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