The Ecological Imperative for a National Cougar Recovery Plan, Part 2
Editor’s note: A longer version of this article ran previously in the newsletter of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, www.cougarrewilding.org. CRF’s most recent newsletter also has important articles on the biological carrying capacity for Cougars in the US Northeast and on the economic benefits of wildlife reintroductions in New York’s Adirondack Park –one of North America’s great rewilding success stories, but unfinished.
Public Cougar Support
It appears to be widely assumed by resource professionals and by journalists covering the cougar beat that the majority of the public don’t or won’t support cougar recovery, that the education necessary to restore cougars east of the Rockies faces a Sisyphean struggle. An Associated Press reporter covering the extinction announcement of the eastern cougar early in 2011 suggested as much late in an interview with the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. Before we could muster an argument in those waning moments, his suggestion – that cougar (and wolf) recovery in the East would face “fierce resistance” – appeared in the article’s conclusion.
A year earlier, a CRF officer had a chance meeting in the field with the now retired endangered species biologist and several of his colleagues from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Following a quick exchange about deer overabundance and the need to restore the cougar’s shepherding presence, reinforced at their feet by the white-tail denuded understory, the blooms and tangles of native and non-native deer-resistant plants passing for said understory, and the limits of New York’s deer management policy, one biologist noted that she, “didn’t need more work (restoring cougars),” while another replied that the DEC, “needed to recruit more hunters.” The senior biologist then mentioned how he’d worked with another distinguished state biologist on a cougar recovery plan for the Adirondacks in the early ’80s, but concluded that, “no one wants ’em here. No one.”
Some eastern resource professionals have confided that they would love to see the cats back, but there’s no way that the existing agency mind-set catering largely to deer hunters would go for it. That, however, is the opinion of the game management agencies, those who listen primarily to hunters (those who pay the agency bills, the agencies parrot; we’ll dismantle that argument later), and not to the general public.
Strikingly, just as we’ve seen with public support for wolf recovery, regional and national public attitude surveys show overwhelming support for the recovery of cougars.
Earlier in the year, MSNBC ran a story on the undiminished rate of unsubstantiated cougar reports in the Northeast since the announcement of the eastern cougar’s extinction, largely a carbon-copy of the sightings articles we’ve seen in town papers from Nova Scotia to Mississippi for decades. Part of the article did, however, discuss the ecological need to restore cougars to our collapsing eastern deciduous forests (the ultimate evidence of cougar absence), and MSNBC inserted that eco-detail niftily into the answer of a related poll: Should cougars be recolonized in the East?
An eye-popping 77% of 6,345 respondents answered, “Yes, they will help the ecosystem; we can learn to coexist.” It wasn’t a random sample, but the survey results mirrored precisely academic surveys for putting panthers back on the ground in north Florida. A Florida Advisory Council on Environmental Education (Duda, 1995) survey found that 77% of respondents in northern Florida supported “panther reintroductions in my or surrounding counties,” quelling the notion that big predator reintroductions become more controversial the closer they are proposed to one’s backyard. And even among groups considered reflexively opposed to big predator recovery, 75% of Florida hunters and anglers supported panther reintroductions.
Indeed, in states living with cougars, the public likes having them around in a big majority way: 90% in Colorado and Florida, 78% in Arizona near Saguaro National Park (both in and outside park boundaries), and 76% in Texas, the one state that has never stopped treating cougars as vermin. In South Dakota, 56% of citizens wished to see no change or an increase in the Black Hills National Forest cougar population, a percentage identical for Black Hills’ residents (p. 52). The Cougar Network’s 2009 survey of North Dakota and Kentucky residents found “generally positive opinions about mountain lions.”
The Federal Response: Huh?
Despite wide public support for the necessary goal of reintroductions in the Panther Recovery Plan, the Department of Interior rejected in 2011 the petition initiated by the Cougar Rewilding Foundation to restore panthers to the Greater Okefenokee Ecosystem in southern Georgia.
In its exhaustive 2011 review determining the cougar’s extinct status in the East, the US Fish & Wildlife Service failed to provide a recovery plan for returning cougars to their eastern range (by USFWS estimation extending all the way to Illinois). USFWS assumed that restoring cougar populations in the East with western surrogates isn’t justified — despite their extirpated status, despite the growing scientific evidence linking ecosystem collapse to predator loss, despite widespread evidence of ecosystem arrest in eastern forests from the absence of predation pressure on white-tailed deer and feral hogs. This, though the USFWS successfully reintroduced peregrine falcons and bald eagles to the East from western subspecies, while eastern state wildlife agencies have successfully reintroduced elk and bobcats, and made an attempt to introduce lynx in the Adirondacks, from western sources. In New York State, a predator, the fisher, was restored in the Catskills and Shawangunks to control tree-damaging porcupine populations. If we can use western subspecies to recover “extinct” eastern subspecies, and predators to control overabundant prey species, then why not use western cougars to recover cougar populations and ecosystem functioning in the East?
This is especially so since the genetic research of a former Cougar Rewilding Foundation board member, Melanie Culver, , found that all cougars in North America belong to the same subspecies. Thus, it appears that the public wants cougar recovery and that there are good biological reasons to restore them. Consequently, a federal recovery plan would appear to be in order.
Predator Shepherds: An Ecological Imperative
The Endangered Species Act was written with the overarching goal of conserving ecosystems on which threatened and endangered species depend. A 1992 study found that deer were damaging 98 threatened or endangered plants (surely, a lengthier list now). A 2008 overview by the U.S. Forest Service concluded that white-tail overabundance is a “serious forest health” issue in 20 northeastern and midwestern states. And feral hogs have long suppressed longleaf pine regeneration throughout the South.
Collapsing eastern ecosystems, including the deciduous forests of the Appalachians and the longleaf pine forests of the coastal Southeast, evolved through cougar presence. Cougars are critical shepherds of forest health. Cougar recovery and ecosystem conservation are mutually dependent. Recovering cougars to all of their former range is a conservation priority of national concern. Cougar recovery is an ecological imperative.
The case can be made from the ESA – “the means by which ecosystems…may be conserved “ – that the US Fish & Wildlife Service and Forest Service are mandated to consider the crashing biodiversity, the critically arrested forest regeneration and weed species swamping, and adopt the body of peer-reviewed science proving ecosystem regeneration from predator presence, and restore cougars for the recovery of terrestrial ecosystems on federal lands throughout the cougar’s entire former range – from Maine to Minnesota, from Oklahoma to Georgia.
But at what level is cougar recovery needed for the health of ecosystems? What is an ecologically effective number of cougars? We’re not talking about the kind of numbers that are enough to sustain genetic viability for one subspecies for 100 years, 240 individuals in two distinct but genetically contiguous populations, the target goal for panther delisting from the ESA. That might be enough for the Florida panther — if the USFWS ever got around to fulfilling the panther reintroduction mandate — but it would not suffice for the longleaf pine ecosystem that panthers can sustain.
The goal should be recovering enough cougars to maintain baseline flora, fauna and ecosystem biodiversity throughout their native range, in perpetuity.
We’re talking about cougars at densities like California’s: unhunted, free to roam, breed, recolonize and shepherd ecosystems on all federal lands east of the Rockies, with reasonable provisions in place for the public to protect themselves, their pets and their livestock, including compensation for those rare depredations. We’re not against potential hunting seasons as the population recovers state-by-state, but given the current, deteriorating, even disgraceful state-managed cougar seasons, we’ll waive that discussion pending considerable evidence of improved state management. (Washington State’s newly adopted 14% annual take is a potential hunting model.)
As we’ve been pointing out for some time, California contains both an area and a human population comparable to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia combined, with less forested habitat.
ME, NH, VT, NY, PA, and WV: 179,150 square miles; 37, 336,250 human population
California: 163, 696 square miles; 37,691,912 human population
With the number of deer and the density of forest cover, based on the roughly 5,000 cougars coexisting in California, along the edges of Oakland and San Francisco and even within the Los Angeles city limits, eastern states like Georgia, Virginia and New York (each with over one million white-tailed deer), could each support 1,000 cougars.
Our Modest Proposal
The US Fish & Wildlife Service, in conjunction with the Forest Service, must establish and implement a national recovery plan for the cougar:
- Providing federal protections with target recovery numbers for recolonizing cougars found east of Texas and the Prairie States, numbers enough to maintain minimum baselines for flora, fauna and ecosystem health and biodiversity.
- Fulfill federal reintroduction mandates to the Southeast in the Florida panther recovery plan where wide public support and recovery locations have already been determined.
- Begin conducting habitat assessments, public attitude surveys and public education campaigns for cougar reintroductions to federal and state lands in the East including national parks, forests, wilderness and recreation areas and wildlife refuges, and big state forest preserves, as in New York’s Catskill and Adirondack Parks.
Our national parks, especially, are chartered to recover and sustain their natural heritage of flora and fauna. Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks, abutting or in close proximity to several national forests, contain contiguous federal lands larger than the successful ’93-’95 test restoration of nineteen Texas and captive-reared pumas to the Greater Okefenokee-Osceola Ecosystem along the Georgia-Florida state line. That test reintroduction and recapture of the cats revealed that cougars can do just fine – with minimal conflict – coexisting with us in eastern landscapes.
Again, California, where cougar hunting was twice-trounced by voter referendum, has demonstrated that we can coexist with cougars at carrying capacity, at saturated ecological densities, even in urban interfaces. Indeed, one misguided, misinformed western state cougar management plan after another has failed to prove with hunting what California has proven for twenty years without hunting: that maintaining cougars at carrying capacity – allowing the cats to police themselves, while taking out problem individuals at the source – is the most successful way to protect pets, livestock and the public from cougars; that the least invasive method is the safest method to manage cougar populations.
California, the state with both the highest cougar density and largest human population, the only western state without cougar hunting, has the lowest ratio of cougar conflicts.
Turns out people, like ecosystems, do the best with the most cougars around. And Mattson et al. last year determined that cougar incidents have been declining for a decade, with just 3 human deaths since 1998. One in 150 animal-related deaths is from a cougar. The biggest animal killer, by far? Vehicle collisions with deer.
Broad public support, two decades of coexistence and management experience, and an ecological imperative: Is there really any reason, then, not to establish a National Cougar Recovery Plan, and restore cougars to all of their former range?
Splitting the Pie
In this day of shrinking government, when calls for slashing state and federal spending are de rigueur, we’re well aware of the arguments to reduce government wildlife funding (except, it seems, for the welfare guns at “Wildlife Services”), especially funding for recovering big predators. In a future article, we’ll look at how state game agencies and their increasingly malfeasant cougar management policies in the West, and equally malfeasant white-tailed deer management in the East, have been funded for eighty years. We’ll show who’s really paying the brunt of those hallowed gear excise taxes (hint: think handguns, not shotguns), and how most state game agencies would falter without, wait for it, matching federal funding – matching tax dollars provided by every U.S. taxpayer.
Seems hunters don’t own the financial key that they and the agencies believe to be their special lock on state wildlife management. In our next article, we’ll propose suggestions for separating “game” species from “non-game” wildlife funding, and how to pay for a National Cougar Recovery Plan. Turns out California, once again, has recently pointed the way.
Christopher Spatz is a former president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation and a director of the Gunks Climbers’ Coalition. He writes and lectures about the natural history of the Catskill Mountains and the Shawangunk Ridge where he lives in southern New York State, and where he caught the spell of the fabled eastern cougar.
Dr. John W. Laundré has studied cougars for over thirty years in both the United States and Mexico. He is currently an assistant professor at Western Oregon University in Monmouth Oregon. As an active board member of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, he advocates the return of cougars to their former territorial range.