Dead Cats Walking
Featured image: Butch © John Laundre
By John Laundre
Recently, another cougar was caught on a trail camera video in northern Minnesota. This was heralded as exciting news by many. A sighting, again raising hopes that cougars from the west will eventually recolonize first the western states of the East. From there the dream is they will eventually return to all possible habitat in the East. It is a nice dream to have. Recolonization always is. It absolves everyone, especially wildlife agencies, of any responsibility. It doesn’t require any effort on the part of the many wildlife organizations except to act as cheerleaders, wishing them the best, sending their hopes and prayers, while boosting their membership along the way.
Their evidence for this dream is the many confirmed sightings, such as this recent one, of cougars moving out from the eastern fringe of their range in the West. Based on these, popular and scientific articles scream out “cougars moving east”. With so many cats being confirmed, they argue it is just a matter of time before at least two of them, male and female, make it to the East and in an Adam and Eve moment, lead to recovery of cougars. A nice thought but unfortunately, it is an Adam and Eve moment that will not happen.
There are two basic reasons this is a pipedream at best. To understand the first, we need to understand the reproductive biology of cougars. Unlike wolves, pack animals who often disperse in pairs, cougars are solitary animals. When they disperse, they disperse alone — truly not conducive to recolonization. Think Noah’s ark with only one of each species! And they disperse differently.
If we follow a single young male at dispersal from the eastern-most range of cougars and he heads west, we know he is usually driven from his birth home by his father or another incoming older, stronger male. Once leaving his home, he will travel as far as necessary to find a vacant territory or take over one where there are already females. Under normal conditions within existing cougar range, anywhere a male moves, there will be females. It is just a matter of whether he can find and hold that vacant territory or is strong enough to force the resident male out. If he can do neither, he will continue to travel until he is “absorbed” into the system, meaning he eventually dies. But at least he has a chance, a chance based on his abilities, to pass his genes on to another generation of cougars.
For females, it is often much simpler. Many choose not to disperse. Most cougars in the wild don’t live beyond six years. With natural mortality occurring, these young females find “space” in their birth area and live out their lives “at home”. If there is no room for them, then they will disperse, but unlike males, will only move as far as necessary. What is necessary? Room to be able to catch enough food to raise the 3-4 litters she might have in her lifetime. Again, under normal circumstances, there are plenty of males on the landscape and finding them is no great concern. As a result, female dispersals are fewer and shorter than those of males. Consequently, “Adam” and “Eve” never disperse together.
The second reason the Adam and Eve scenario is unlikely is because if that male or that female disperses from the eastern edge of cougar range and, unfortunately, decides to head east, they become dead cats walking. Just as human convicts on death row, they are essentially sentenced to a death penalty and it is just a matter of time before that sentence is carried out. Why? Because they are moving into one of the most hostile regions of the U.S. for cougars, the former prairie-lands, now dominated by agri-business, and more aptly named the killing-lands. They must cross the multitude of highways that fragment the land, and many do not make it. Here amid the vast fields of corn and soy, there is little or no cover and what cover can be found along river banks usually leads them directly to towns and large cities where uninformed law officials gladly kill them as perceived public threats. They also face draconian “game laws” that encourage anyone with a gun to shoot them on sight. Because of these barriers, most of those “confirmed sightings” of cougars in the prairie region are of dead cats, their sentence having been carried out by automobiles or guns. As dead cougars don’t reproduce, one can draw as many dots on a map as they want and it doesn’t mean squat regarding recolonization.
Yet occasionally, a cougar, like the one recently in Minnesota, makes it through to the eastern forests. Hallelujah! People cheer, organizations point to these as evidence cougars are moving east — and oh by the way, ask for your donation to help them cheer.
However, even reaching the cover of the eastern forests does not commute the sentence, is not a last minute pardon from the governor, as demonstrated by the Chicago cat of 2008 who was killed in a hail of gunfire, or the Connecticut cat in 2011 who after over a 1,500-mile journey, documented in William Stolzenberg’s Heart of a Lion, still ended up dead along a busy highway. But what about those who have not been found dead? There have been sightings from Minnesota to Tennessee of cougars that, so far as we know, have not ended up dead on a highway or at the wrong end of a gun. Surely, some well-meaning wildlife advocates hope, evidence that they have made it and still may be there.
For these lucky few, however, that death sentence still hangs over their heads. They still are dead cats walking. Unfortunately, they are almost all Adams with absolutely no chance of finding an Eve in the promise land. Or as with the supposed female in Tennessee, she waits in vain for her Adam to come along. Though alive, they are dead genetically and after futile searching or waiting, they will be “absorbed” into the system never to be heard of again. Every cougar that has made that fatal decision to head east is condemned to the same death sentence. It is a sentence that will end with bullets or a motor vehicle or, if extremely lucky, quietly living mate-less in a forested Eden. until they eventually die. In each case, they have not met their Adam or Eve. In each case, they will not contribute to recolonization. In each case they are dead, and dead cats do not recolonize.
In short, anyone looking to the west as a source of “recolonization” of cougars in the east is living a pipedream. It is a dream stoked by the many bodies and occasional videos of dead cats walking. Of cougars who will die quickly or eventually without a chance of reproducing, of being that Adam and Eve whom so many hope for. It is a dream meant to placate us, to divert our attention and to keep us from doing what is right, what is needed: to demand that cougars be reintroduced into the East. To not idly wait around but to actively take part in returning cougars to their rightful ecological heritage. Along with many other conservation biologists and naturalists, I have written often on this subject, including in my book Phantoms of the Prairie and in my upcoming book Guardians of the Forest. The Cougar Rewilding Foundation actively campaigns for their reintroduction. The basic conclusion of all of us is that the East desperately needs its top predators. And that need will not be fulfilled by dead cats walking.
John Laundré was born and raised in the Midwest (Wisconsin) and received his bachelors and masters degrees there. He received his PhD from Idaho State University in 1979. Since then, he has been working in large mammal predator-prey ecology for over 40 years and has studied predators and their prey in the western U.S. and northern Mexico. His experience includes working with cougars, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, deer, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep. He has conducted one of the longest (17 years) studies of cougar ecology and behavior to date and has published over 80 scientific articles on his scientific work. He is the originator of the concept of the landscape of fear that proposed that fear of prey for their predators drives many, if not all ecological processes. The one important aspect of this concept is that predators become instrumental in maintaining the balance between prey species and their habitat, not so much by killing their prey but affecting how they use the landscape. He is the author of the book, Phantoms of the Prairie, The Return of Cougars to the Midwest, that looks at the phenomenon of cougars actually moving back into the Great Plains region of the U.S. He currently lives in western Oregon where he is “semi-retired” and is doing some teaching at Western Oregon University. He on the Board of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation whose goal is the eventual re-establishment of viable cougar populations in the Eastern U.S. He continues to be active in predator-prey issues.