The autumnal equinox is here, landscapes and backyard maples are sporting that familiar early-fall tinge and, yep, cougar feedback from high priests is alive and well.
It didn’t take long for Cougar Rewildling Foundation (CRF) President Chris Spatz to chime in on last week’s column titled “Cougar Rewildling Could Happen Here.” Actually, there is probably no one on earth more eager for such a development. That’s his foundation’s mission: to bring cougars back east. But he knows the he and other cougar advocates are really up against it politically. It is thus not difficult to surmise that he’s pessimistic at best about cougars returning to the Northeast, based on what he knows about government policy where cougar populations are alive, well and itching to migrate out to new domains.
The major problem is that state and federal wildlife and law-enforcement officials, always swayed by public outcry, opinion and safety concerns, are pulling strenuously in the opposite direction. While some of these wildlife experts are indeed sympathetic to the noble beasts’ plight to repopulate places from which they were long ago extirpated, most public officials know that the return of any large carnivores capable of inflicting bodily harm or even death upon human beings are not generally welcome, even on the fringes of rural neighborhoods. Thus, in a place like South Dakota’s picturesque Black Hills, where some 30 years ago cougars returned after, give or take, a 100-year absence, state officials would rather be safe than sorry, so to speak. So, in recent years they have instituted what cougar defenders consider draconian harvest quotas aimed at keeping big cats buried deep in the wilderness and away from even rural folks, never mind suburbs and urban areas.
This dilemma is spelled out in minute detail by science and nature writer William Stolzenburg, whose intriguing new book “Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America” follows the media-darling cougar that traveled more than 2000 miles from his Black Hills birthplace to Milford, Conn, before meeting its maker on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in the wee hours of June 11, 2011. Although this juvenile male “disperser” may not have been the first cougar to make such a cross-country journey in search of a female and new territory of its own, it is the first and only documented case, one that may solve the mystery of at least some of the hundreds of sightings reported in the Northeast over the past 30 years. The fact is that there’s really no way of knowing for sure. On the other hand, there’s no way of saying it’s impossible, either. Now that South Dakota and other western cats are being tranquilized and collared for research studies, others may well show us the way to rewildling and hint at the possibility that such migrations have been randomly and rarely occurring for many years.
Spatz wouldn’t likely argue against that hypothesis, given what he now knows about male dispersers as a result of the western collaring and telemetry tracking initiative. Young males do indeed wander greater distances than initially believed to escape the ire of dominant males in established territory, and to find females. The problem is that the same type of research shows females reluctant to travel nearly as far.
“No wild female (with a fresh case in Tennessee still pending) or kittens have been documented east of the Missouri River,” wrote Spatz last week. “The closest breeding colony remains Nebraska. Young males can disperse thousands of miles ’til the cows come home. But if females don’t make into the Midwest, let alone farther east, there can be no rewildling.”
Fair enough. But having read, enjoyed and comprehended Stolzenburg’s book on a fascinating subject of longtime personal interest and study, the author seems to suggest that re-establishing cougars to their old eastern haunts would eventually happen by natural migration and range expansion with friendly wildlife-management objectives. Which is to say that if the wildlife-management goal was to allow western big cats to multiply at sufficient rates to expedite range expansion of males and females, sooner or later they’d repopulate available wilderness areas through the Ozark Mountains as well as Great Lakes country, not to mention farther east in the Adirondack, Green, White and Appalachians mountains all the way down the East Coast to the Blue Ridge and Great Smokies.
Although Spatz doesn’t expect such a liberal cougar-management policy to be enacted in the Black Hills anytime soon, he didn’t argue with the inevitable-rewildling hypothesis if such the goal was to push populations east.
“Yes, it would happen eventually,” he wrote, “but it’s 700 miles from the central Nebraska colony to the next best habitat identified by (CRF colleague) John Laundre as well as the Cougar Network in the Ozarks and northern Minnesota.
“Every male that’s made that trek for the last 25 years has either been killed or disappeared. Females tend to stay within 100 miles of their natal range. Prairie range expansion has crept only 150 miles in 25 years. That means it would take at least 50 years to get halfway to the Ozarks under good conditions. The question is: how will females raise kittens to dispersal age while stepping stone across this hostile landscape where no male has survived in 25 years?
“So much must change in puma management across 2,000 miles to get them back to New England.”
Then again, never underestimate the power of Mother Nature, and don’t just dismiss out of hand every local cougar sighting you hear of. Obviously, after that 2011 Connecticut road kill, it can happen, probably will again and has before.