Menu

Phantom of the Forest: Could the Cougar Again Haunt Eastern U.S. Woodlands?

Cougars are making their way eastward across the U.S.
The ghost cat, better known as the cougar, may make its way to eastern woodlands. (Photograph: Denis Callet)

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.

Cougars, deer and humans share a common future.
Cougars, deer and humans: species whose existence is intertwined. (Photograph: Denis Callet)

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.”

Map of mountain lions on-the-move eastward.
Researchers at the Cougar Network have produced a new map showing mountain lions’ eastward expansion. (Graphic: Brad Herried)

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.

Gone walkabout: cougar on-the-move.
Cougar gone walkabout. Many of these felines are on-the-move from west to east. (Photograph: Denis Callet)

Gone walkabout

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?”

Cougar moving from place-to-place under cover of darkness.
Under cover of darkness, where is this cougar heading? To the Midwest and beyond, recent signs say. (Photograph: Denis Callet)

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.”

By dark of night, a cougar drinks at a stream.
Cats-of-the-shadows, cougars may slowly creep toward Northeast landscapes. (Photograph: Johanna Turner)

 

Comments

  1. Carly Long
    Greensboro, NC
    December 9, 8:45 am

    Just yesterday I spotted a Cougar right above Greensboro, NC in a residential area. It was so surreal! I could not believe I was actually seeing a real live cougar in a neighborhood. From a distance it looked like a cat but as i drove closer, it was definitely much too large to be your standard domesticated cat.

  2. Kelly G
    Charleston, SC
    December 4, 12:31 pm

    I saw a black panther 4 to 5 ft long near Hwy. 17 in Charleston, SC. I had earlier seen a bobcat in that area also. This big cat had a long slender tail and rounded ears that were held back. It was crouching low to the ground. I have had domesticated cats my whole life. This was a big cat.

  3. Jerry G.
    Columbia County, New York
    December 1, 3:30 am

    Many credible sightings in upstate NY, near the MA. border.
    Matter of fact, while looking through old area newspapers on microfilm, I’ve seen articles dating back to the 1940’s regarding mountain lions – they’ve probably never left.

  4. Bryan kaskiw
    Proton station Ontario
    November 19, 2:00 am

    Seen one leap out of the ditch into the feild on my way home from work about a month ago at about 7pm a week prior to that a friend from work and my brother said they seen one in my bosses laneway early in the morning i thought they were dreaming untill i seen it myself

  5. Blair
    October 12, 5:07 pm

    The wildlife department, national and state parks should not be catering to hunters but to the healthy existence of these animals. Our job is to find ways to coexist with nature, not compartmentalize habitats and killing. We should be developing strategies so animals can safely migrate over highways and through or around neighborhoods. They are not as threatening as made out to be. Perspective: domestic dogs injure or kill people and livestock way more than other animals. Please don’t shot or injure a cougar, call and report to relocate it as we figure out how to balance habitat with these exquisite creatures. Thanks

  6. Jay Brimberry
    October 6, 11:00 am

    Mr. McDonald, the animal in your photo is a bobcat, it is easily distinguished and apparent due to its pointed ears. Cougars have rounded ears, whereas bobcats and lynx have pointed ears. In your enlarged photo you can see the ears are pointed. As for the female in Tennessee, I too have seen where the dna workup tended to show it was a female. If, that is in fact the case, and she survived, we should have some cougars populating the South East before long.

  7. David "Duck" McDonald
    Anderson, SC
    August 6, 4:10 am

    Saw one about 7:30pm last night in the field behind ou house.
    I got a picture of the back of its head. We saw it walking thru the field and it was definitely a huge cat, about 5′ long with a heavy thick tail about as long. It looks like it was stalking my neighbor’s horses. By the time I got my camera it was crouching and I could only see the back of its head. It ran off shortly after and I couldn’t get another picture. This picture was taken from about 275-300ft with a 270mm lens. That alters the depth percepton, so actually the big cat’s head it about 2 to 3 times as wide as the horse’s leg.
    Here is a link to the picture which I posted on FaceBook.
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1038940229517745&set=pcb.1038925812852520&type=3&theater

  8. Unsprung
    Maryland
    June 19, 6:09 am

    So many people who comments are SURE they have seen a cougar, yet the article says biologist Mark Elbroch of New England checked out 40 sightings and could only confirm one.

  9. Jeanie herring
    Pickens.sc
    May 27, 6:40 pm

    I saw one cross the road right in front of my car last year..

  10. russ
    wrentham ma
    January 13, 4:33 pm

    why are they killing them in those western breeding states they belong to all of us. why do they have the right to kill them after such great effort has been put in to revive a once so abundant creature .we all have a right to speake about this ridiculous policy in those three stupid states

  11. russ
    wrentham ma.
    January 13, 4:28 pm

    cougars in the west are doing fine .the mid west has a breeding population and now, just as they are seeming to come back those three states I think Wyoming Idaho and Nebraska .open season for hunting them. I am mad as hell ,these cats belong to all of us and are a part of a great natural resourse. that should be allowed to flourish.what is wrong with that picture. how can they bring them back and then decide they want them dead again. ill tell you somrthing if they did make it to new England most all people here would be loving it and we would never kill them once they were breeding. what sense dose this make.please support our national and state parks they belong to all of us not just the hunters and murderers of wildlife.

  12. Kitty Blincoe
    North NJ
    December 18, 2015, 11:41 am

    I was teaching a yoga class one or two years ago in Chestnut Ridge, NY and someone from the class stopped and said Mountain Lion! – we stopped and watched this being walk through the woods. These woods connect to large state park and reservation. We still talk about it today – some were believers and a few won’t accept. One does not mistake a massive feline for something else! Interestingly, it was right in an area where deer often congregate.

  13. Michelle LaRue
    December 15, 2015, 11:20 am

    According to recent news, there is evidence of a female cougar in Tennessee! A bow hunter went to TWRA with blood on his arrow, and the DNA suggests it was a female perhaps from the Black Hills. The Cougar Network has not independently confirmed with TWRA yet, however. If she is still alive that would be very exciting!

    And, thanks to fellow commenter, Kirk, for the Cougar Network shout out!

  14. anthony
    brampton ontario
    December 9, 2015, 11:47 am

    thank you for this information I appreciate it a lot and I will use it a lot in coming years

  15. Kirk Goolsby
    Warrenton, Va
    December 2, 2015, 9:34 am

    Alfred W Bethea: The Cougar in western georgia, first reported as a suspected escapee, was tested (I believe by Univ. of Alabama) and determined to have been a wild Florida Panther.

    Please submit all pictures of cougars in your area to one of the research groups that studies cougars. http://www.cougarnet.org/ is a good place to start.

    YOUR PICTURE WILL HELP SCIENCE.

  16. Chris Bolster
    Southern Newhampshire
    November 30, 2015, 9:58 pm

    About a year ago I found a deer carcus up in a pine tree about 10 ft off the ground I’ve hunted my entire life all over the us and had never herd of a bear doing such a thing. So I put up a game camera the 1600 acre piece of woods I hunt is a private farm and on my game camera I had 3 photos of what appeared to be a giant cat! The local biologist told me that he couldn’t confirm nor Deni that it was a cougar.

  17. M. Ardian Fox
    Milwaukee, WI
    November 21, 2015, 6:05 am

    Why has no one mentioned capturing and relocating some Cougars in the West and releasing them in the East? Can that not be done? The deer population is creating havoc in our woods here in Wisconsin too! We have the Kettle Moraine areas that could support them also.

  18. Djeepmtl
    Montreal, Qc
    November 20, 2015, 9:05 pm

    One cougar was seen last week in Ottawa river area in Quebec.

    You can see pictures on tThe French Connection Hunting Team facebook group

  19. shawn
    N IL
    November 14, 2015, 8:54 am

    We have a recent pic from a trail cam of one in sw Michigan.

  20. Larry Harbert
    November 11, 2015, 11:10 am

    Ooops-made an editing mistake-after Otter reek wilderness area,it should have stated in Tucker and Randolph counties in W.Va.

  21. robert templeton
    simpsonville sc
    November 11, 2015, 11:09 am

    I saw one several years ago deer hunting in Laurens County, It was solid black, 150-180lbs, had a tail close to 5 ft, longer than its body. watched it for several minutes. a buddy saw one just like it several miles from my location, crossed the road in front of him at night.

  22. Larry Harbert
    Ohio
    November 11, 2015, 11:07 am

    We have seen cougars and their tracks in the Monongahela national forest,and the Otter Creek Wilderness My cousin had a picture of one he saw while bowhunting,and several of us have seen the animals since the late 1970’s.
    I don’t know if they were peoples “pets” that escaped,or if they came from somewhere else,but I know what I saw,and others saw.
    That part of the state is mostly national forest land,few people,lots of deer,and plenty of areas that rarely see humans traveling through.

  23. vinoman1953
    Pa
    November 7, 2015, 7:06 am

    Were these migrations and recolonization occur, they’d be perfect in PA’s over populated whitetail areas where urban flight has destroyed hunting opportunities, i.e. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia suburbs. Problem is, when they show up, the relocated urbanites panic, as they do with bears, and demand that they be removed. So they end up trapped or euthanized and relocated to the more barren big woods. Let them have their range and they will rebalance what self serving individuals, who are the first to preach conservation, have caused.

  24. Ron Patterson
    Amherst, Nova Scotia
    November 6, 2015, 3:11 pm

    In 2009 my wife and I were travelling to Florida in late January and after leaving Emporia Virginia early one morning we saw a dead cougar on the shoulder of I95 southbound. Its rear end and tail were on the pavement and its front end was on road shoulder. The traffic was so heavy and the shoulder so narrow I could not stop. I reported it to North Carolina game officials but never heard back from them.

  25. Michelle LaRue
    November 6, 2015, 11:25 am

    Think you have good cat identification skills? Then come play #CougarOrNot on Twitter and Facebook today and every Friday! Follow @drmichellelarue and @Cougar_Network on Twitter, and like the Cougar Network on Facebook. Hope to see you there!

  26. Alfred W Bethea
    Dillon County South Carolina
    November 6, 2015, 9:25 am

    I grew up on a farm in Dillon County. There have been reliable panther sightings all my life. Dr. Paul Freel of Dillon watched one with binoculars in broad day light for several minutes about 10 yeares ago. Several of our farm workers have come within 10 feet of them in past years. Bill Nettles of the Federal Public Defenders office reports that his wife saw one cross I-95 near Camden, SC in daylight. One was killed by a hunter in Georgia a few years ago and DNA confirmed it was not an escaped pet. David Mclaurin of Dillon saw one near the Dillon-Marlboro county line a few years ago. Coon Hunters in our area have always reported sighting of “long tailed cats” I could get 50 affadavits from very reliable people to confirm that they are and have been out there in our area.

  27. Christopher Spatz/Cougar Rewilding Foundation
    New York
    November 5, 2015, 4:32 pm

    Stepping-stone happened in central Nebraska because biologist Sam Wilson saw to it that the Niobrara River Valley was protected when the rest of the state went to an open season, year-round hunt. That’s the easternmost protected habitat for cougars on the northern prairie. We will see, indeed. Some of us are praying.

  28. Mark Dowling / The Cougar Network
    Connecticut
    November 5, 2015, 1:19 pm

    As one of the founders of the Cougar Network, I have been fortunate to be at the forefront of the Midwest Cougar phenomena. Cougar recovery and expansion into the Midwest has been one of the most compelling wildlife stories in my lifetime. Over the past two decades breeding populations of cougars have recolonized three mid-western states, including South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska. The precedent for “Stepping Stone Dispersal” of females further east has clearly been set. Only time will tell if this gradual expansion east will continue. Peer reviewed research now suggests that it is likely to continue. The one thing I expect is that these magnificent cats will continue to surprise us.

  29. Michelle LaRue
    November 5, 2015, 11:12 am

    In response to Cougar Rewilding’s comment, we have actually done the research that would be necessary to understand the biological capacity for females to arrive in the Midwest – and our results and your thoughts are pretty similar. We found, in a paper coming out today or tomorrow, that it would be within the next 25 years (as late as 2040 – as you said) that females would show up in the middle section of the United States. It is our opinion that with this research should come public engagement, education, and outreach about what it might mean for people in the Midwest to be living with cougars again. Science-based education and outreach is crucial for everyone involved in dealing with a recolonizing carnivore like the cougar.

  30. Michelle LaRue
    November 5, 2015, 10:39 am

    At the Cougar Network we update our maps every time we get new information, so check out our most recent map that includes new confirmations in Kansas, Michigan, and the most recent confirmation as of yesterday – photos in Oklahoma!
    Right on our homepage, under About the Cougar: http://www.cougarnet.org/

  31. Janet boston
    Huntsville, Ontario, canada
    November 5, 2015, 10:29 am

    Saw a cougar a few years back late 90’s I was shocked beautiful majestic animal

  32. Vivienne Seaman
    Drummond Island, Mi
    November 5, 2015, 10:20 am

    I saw one young Cougar in my sisters driveway. It looked at us looking out the window at it and moved on. Time, about10 seconds. What a beautiful animal it was. At that time it was spotted by several people around town and on the golf course. We live in a very rural area. It was probably looking for one of the neighborhood cats to eat.

  33. Stephen
    PHILADELPHIA Pennsylvania
    November 5, 2015, 9:41 am

    I am an Avid Small game Hunter and Venture Scout The Cougar Needs to make a Comeback Our Gamelands Depend on the Natural Predators they Evolved with.

  34. Christopher Spatz/Cougar Rewilding Foundation
    New York
    November 5, 2015, 7:56 am

    Good to see a voice of reason in Dave Mech. A wild female with kittens has yet to be documented east of central Nebraska, which means recolonization has moved just 150 miles east in 25 years of prairie dispersal. At that rate, under good conditions, recolonization won’t reach east of a Prairie state until 2040, let alone further east. Every male that has appeared east of the Prairie states has either been killed, captured or disappeared. None have been found alive over the age of 3 in 25 years. Iowa does not protect cougars. Though protected in Minnesota, shoot-to-kill APBs have greeted cougars wandering into residential areas. Though protected in Missouri, and despite doing nothing but showing up, cougars have been killed in “self-defense” without repercussion. Why would such a fate not greet the first female trying to raise a her first litter in one of these Midwest states east of prairie habitat? As prairie hunting quotas were raised and open seasons were established across the norther plains during the past 5 years, the number of dispersers moving east as measured by moralities/captures has dropped every year since 2011. For those trumpeting cougar recolonization into the Midwest, please look deeper into your research.

  35. jan drobiak
    bolton, ct
    November 5, 2015, 4:35 am

    Have a picture on my friends deercam of a cougar dragging a dead deer across a trail in Eastford, Ct.
    Another was photographed in Avon, Ct
    Another was sighted in East Haddam.
    All documented, of course, unless you are the DEEP.
    I would safely estimate there’re at least several in CT woodlands.
    I think it unlikely that cougar spotted in Lake George and the one killed on 95 in CT is the same one. Pssst, never fails, from the beginning of time, ‘Where there is one, there is more.’

  36. Candy
    New York
    November 5, 2015, 2:42 am

    I live in the Catskills. 5 years ago I watched a cougar cross my neighbor’s yard across the road. It was early morning with good light, I watched it for at least 15 seconds before it dove into the grass after some deer. There was no doubt what it was. There have been at least 3 more sightings since by close neighbors. I now have a trail cam in my woods, hoping to catch it for proof.

  37. Lisa K.
    Western North Carolina
    November 4, 2015, 10:03 pm

    I read this article thinking it might mention the fact that one had been photographed in our region within the last month. It was in the area around Buledean, NC (North end of Mitchell County) and Tennessee.

  38. Catherine
    Sterling MA
    November 4, 2015, 9:55 pm

    I saw a mountain lion stalk a turkey right in my own backyard in Sterling MA at dinner time. Lion face, long tail. They’re out there.

  39. Catherine
    Sterling MA
    November 4, 2015, 9:54 pm

    I saw a mountain lion stalk a wild turkey right in my own backyard at dinner time a few years ago. Lion face,long tail. It was unbelievable. They are out there!

  40. Cornelia Hutt
    Round Hill, VA
    November 4, 2015, 2:03 pm

    Another beautifully written and informative article by Cheryl Lyn Dybas. It is a joy to share it on the Red Wolf Coalition Facebook page for all wildlife lovers to read and enjoy.

  41. Dave Mech
    St.. Paul, MN
    November 4, 2015, 1:00 pm

    All it would take is for the females to disperse to the East. Unfortunately, contrary to males, females tend to be very philopatric, usually dispersing <100 miles. Until they change their habits, I am afraid the East must be content with any number of lonely bachelors.

  42. Michelle LaRue
    November 4, 2015, 10:01 am

    At the Cougar Network, we receive several photos every week and we review each and every one of them. Because we get so many photos, I started a social media game called, Cougar Or Not (#CougarOrNot on Twitter). Every Friday I post on Twitter (@drmichellelarue handle) a real photo submitted to us and then ask followers to identify the animal. It’s been illuminating so far and a great educational and outreach tool. Join in by following me and the Cougar Network (@Cougar_Network on Twitter) and on follow the Cougar Network on Facebook.

  43. Mary Spencer
    Oregon
    November 4, 2015, 6:29 am

    My son in Eugene Oregon area helped a person find a cougar he hit with his car. It had died by a neighbors shed. Report of one farmer lost three animals killed by cougar in one week. Reports of three cougars roaming together. My son saw a live cougar on the way to work in early morning hours. No longer able to use dogs to hunt cougars and number of cougar allowed to be killed has gone down.