The phantom, it’s been called, this big cat that now prowls western North and South America forests from the Yukon to Patagonia. It has dozens of monikers, from panther to puma to mountain lion, catamount to deer tiger to cougar.
However it may be known, could the feline, long gone from the U.S. East but for an isolated Florida panther subpopulation, be on the comeback trail? Biologists are finding some surprising answers.
A clue may lie in its name. The word cougar comes from a term meaning “false deer,” a phrase coined by the Tupi. These long-ago Amazonians had an instinctive understanding of a modern scientific idea: the lives of predators (in this case, cougars) and prey (deer) are intertwined.
Out of balance: Cougars, deer–and humans
Intertwined, but not in balance.
A century ago, the white-tailed deer that currently overrun eastern woodlands almost went extinct. By the early 20th century, unregulated hunting had taken down deer in much of their range. In the 1930s, the entire U.S. deer population numbered about 300,000.
Then conservation programs and controlled hunting were introduced. Recent estimates place U.S. deer numbers at 30 million. In many locales, white-tailed deer now exceed the environment’s carrying capacity.
It wasn’t only deer that were once in rifle sights. Early settlers believed the eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) was a danger to livestock and to humans, and a competitor for wild game. The cats were hunted until only their ghosts remained.
Eastern cougars once roamed as far north as southeastern Ontario, southern Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada; south to South Carolina; and west to Kentucky, Illinois and Michigan, according to the New Hampshire Wildlife Journal. Between the 1790s and 1890s, their range contracted significantly. The last three eastern cougars were killed in 1930 in Tennessee, 1932 in New Brunswick, and 1938 in Maine.
A cat that’s been called the best hunter in the world was extinct, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) concluded on March 2, 2011. On June 16, 2015, the USFWS proposed removing it from the endangered species list. In reality, according to USFWS findings, the eastern cougar may have been gone for more than 70 years.
“The extinction of the eastern puma and other apex carnivores upended the ecology of the original colonies and beyond,” says scientist Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in Washington, D.C.
“More than a century after deer almost went extinct in the Northeast, they’ve returned with a voracious vengeance,” he says. “We have forests that have lost the top and bottom of the food chain. It should be a clarion call to recover pumas and all our apex predators to sustainable levels to help rebalance a world that is out-of-kilter.”
Phantom cats: Are they afoot among us?
Is there a chance that cougars, melting into and out of forest shadows, could still be in the eastern U.S.? Cougars sometimes materialize there, but they’ve been animals on-the-move from populations out west, or cats that have been released or have escaped from captivity, biologists say.
In places like Massachusetts, cougars have left relatively recent signs of their wanderings. Biologist Mark Elbroch of the wild cat science and conservation organization Panthera once investigated more than 40 mountain lion sightings from Connecticut to Maine.
“I turned up one cougar,” remembers Elbroch, “in the Quabbin Reservoir area of Massachusetts. The cat had killed a beaver–and kindly left behind scat to send for genetic testing, which confirmed the identification.” It probably made its way to Massachusetts from South Dakota, a state that’s been recolonized by cougars.
December 16, 2010. Lake George, New York, on the southeastern edge of the Adirondack Mountains. Out of twilight snow squalls, a cougar walked straight through a backyard near Lake George Village. The last confirmed mountain lion sighting in New York had been more than 100 years earlier.
DNA testing of hair left by the cat in its tracks later proved it was indeed a cougar. It ultimately headed south toward Interstate 95 in Connecticut; in the end, the cougar was killed on the highway.
The mountain lion came from South Dakota’s Black Hills. It could just as easily have trekked into the Northeast from states such as Oklahoma and Missouri, says biologist Michelle LaRue of the University of Minnesota. LaRue is also the executive director of the Cougar Network, an organization dedicated to studying the role of cougars in ecosystems. Cougars are returning to many of their former haunts in the Midwest and beyond, LaRue says.
The cats have been spotted in Arkansas, Illinois and other midwestern states and Canadian provinces. In a paper published today in the journal Ecological Modelling, LaRue and biologist Clay Nielsen of Southern Illinois University report that within 25 years, cougars are likely to occupy large patches of habitat in the Midwest.
The cougar indeed “may be gradually reclaiming some of its former range in the midwestern U.S. and Canada, with 178 confirmed records outside known breeding range in 1990-2008,” states Panthera president Luke Hunter in his 2015 book Wild Cats of the World. Cougars are most likely to be found, says Hunter, “where large areas of habitat remain.”
Adds LaRue, “Now we can start asking questions like: where is this eastward expansion of cougar range going? Will the cougar’s reach extend beyond midwestern states?”
Shadow cats: where to next?
Forests in northern New England and upstate New York, for example, offer cougars viable places to live, according to Sue Morse, science director of Keeping Track in Huntington, Vermont. The region has enough cover and prey to sustain the cats, she says.
Young male cougars may roam hundreds of miles in their search for territories and mates. “Recent confirmed reports indicate that occasional transient cougars from source populations in western Canada are moving eastward,” says Morse. “That’s good news. We need apex predators for the health of our forests, which in many places are being ravaged by deer.”
The loss of cougars, she says, “is ultimately our loss.”
In New York’s Adirondack Mountains, people by and large agree. If mountain lions make their way to this six-million-acre state park, they may find the welcome mat out. Researchers Elizabeth McGovern of Yale University and Heidi Kretser of the Wildlife Conservation Society report in the Wildlife Society Bulletin that a majority of New York residents and Adirondack visitors surveyed support natural recolonization of cougars in the park.
There’s good reason for an open door policy for mountain lions, according to ecologist Sophie Gilbert of the University of Alberta. The decline of large carnivores such as cougars has led to increased deer-vehicle collisions, damage to agriculture and a decline in biodiversity.
One estimate found that car crashes involving white-tailed deer cause more than one billion dollars in damages, 29,000 injuries and 211 deaths in the U.S. each year.
Gilbert and other scientists conducted the first valuation of an “ecosystem service” provided by a large carnivore–the cougar–returning to its former range. If cougars came back to the East, the scientists calculated, the cats would reduce deer-vehicle collisions by 22 percent within 30 years–resulting in 21,400 prevented injuries, 155 avoided human fatalities, and $2.13 billion in cost cuts.
Data from South Dakota show that the cats are already saving human residents there $1.1 million annually.
Whether enough cougars for a breeding population in the East will ever make it cross-country is an unanswered question. “Recolonization of eastern North America by cougars will likely occur via a stepping-stone fashion,” says Nielsen, “where cougars first inhabit western patches of habitat then slowly move eastward.”
In a land that today is ruled by white-tailed deer, the reappearance of a magnificent cat once called the false deer may be a celebrated return. For now, as biologist and writer Gary Turbak has said, it may be enough “just to know that sometimes, in the shadows of dusk, felines on large paws still creep across the land.”