Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cougar - the cat's coming back

My dad (a folksinger now living in Seattle) used to play us a tune with the refrain:

"Very next day the cat came back
Thought he was a goner but the cat came back
'Cause he couldn't stay away"

Klandagi, Lord of the Forest (as the Cherokee called it) used to have a nationwide range in the United States. Reports of cats outside the shrunken WWII-era range of the Western US and Florida - in other words, members of the supposedly exterminated Eastern population - kept trickling in, and they continue up to the present day.  Most are mistakes, but some are intriguing, and a few are seemingly undeniable.  Ecologist Chris Bolgiano wrote from her home in Virginia that "Sometimes it seems I am the only person I know who hasn’t seen a panther.” She added in her book on the animal that, while she was very cautious in accepting cougar reports, "“I myself have seen a home video filmed in western Maryland in 1992 that showed an unmistakable cougar stepping momentarily between trees in a forest.”
In this article, the NYT examines the slow return of the cougar.
"There are increasing reports of sightings in 11 Midwestern states, as well as in Arkansas and Louisiana. A young male tripped a trail camera in the Missouri Ozarks on Feb. 2, and dogs treed one in Minnesota in March."
Actually, there's a lot more going on than that.  It's not clear the Eastern cougar was ever extinct, despite the official position of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) (which oddly got around to declaring extinction only in 2011) and many state agencies.  Consigned to oblivion (or to cryptozoology, which to some experts is the same thing) since 1938, the Eastern cougar just might have hung on. A wildlife biologist reported a good sighting in New Jersey in 1958.  A private effort, the Eastern Puma Research Network, reports 11,000 (!) sightings since 1965.  Despite the very conservative attitude of the FWS, an old agency fact sheet said evidence from the  Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1970s indicated “there were an estimated three to six cougars living in the park.”   (One wonders where these five or six cougars were supposed to have gone when the declaration of extinction came 36 years later.)
It's true that genuine cougar sightings may be of released or escaped exotic pets, as this New York fact sheet says. The FWS says it has tracked 110 sightings to cougars which were not native. A cat which left tracks in Rhode Island in 1998 foraged in a garbage can, unknown behavior for a wild cougar. A cougar killed in Tennessee in 1971 may also have been domesticated.  It can be hard to tell, even with DNA, because there's not a clear distinctinction between cougar subspecies. An Eastern cougar is an Eastern cougar because it lives naturally in the East.
Tracks, hair, and droppings found in New Brunswick in 1992 were identified by wildlife officials as belonging to a cougar. A deer definitely killed by a cougar was found in New York in 1993.  The FWS confirmed that droppings found in Vermont in 1994 were from a mother cougar and two kittens.  A farmer in Virginia was compensated by the government in 1998 after a cougar apparently killed his goats.
Most recently and famously, a  wild cougar from South Dakota (according to DNA) was killed in Connecticut last year. Granted, this animal, having made a cross-country trek, didn't qualify as an Eastern cougar (maybe you'd call him a tourist?), but demonstrated again there was suitable cougar habitat in New England. To the north, the Departnment of Natural Resources in Ontario, Canada, still believes there are cougars in that province even though there have been no kills since 1884. 
My opinion?
I'm pretty conservative on large cryptozoological land animals. I don't accept the mass of sasquatch sightings, for example, as proving sasquatch.  But I think sighting evidence is more persusive when you're talking about an animal you know DID inhabit an area of interest. Given that the white-tailed deer, almost wiped out in the late 1800s, is now so abundant it's called "the long-legged rat," and the competing wolves are largely long gone, the remaining wilderness areas in the Eastern cougar's range are more than sutiable - they are pretty much cougar paradise, where the wary cats would never need to approach human dwellings and would be seen only by chance. 
So I suspect that the Eastern cat has not come back... because it was never gone. 


Laurence Clark Crossen said...

That certainly seems like an extreme position for anyone, particularly for you. How could they have survived east of the Mississippi given the intensive hunting one hundred years ago? I think it came back from Florida and Canada. Ideal conditions have long existed given the huge deer population, and there is always the pressure for young males to establish their own new territory. It seems that the authorities are disinclined from acknowledging their return and it is hard to know if they are breeding in the wild.

Matt Bille said...

Clark, it's rare I go out on such a limb, but I just have a feeling on this one. If 95% of the sightings were wrong, we still have a lot of sightings. (I realize I don't acccept that line of logic for sasquatch, but it's different when you have a known species and are talking about a range where you know it once occurred.)
The explosion of the deer population means there's cougar food everywhere, and they don't need to come near human settlements to find it. Tennessee seems to be a place the reports were consistently good, and some PA and VA sightings are impressive. (I wrote about some in Shadows of Existence.) I don't know what do to with the "black puma" type sightings, but my dad had one cross the road in front of him in Maine in the 1950s.

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

You did not really answer the question that you should answer. What early evidence exists that they never went extinct?

Matt Bille said...

Clark, you're right, I didn't support my reasoning. I've gone back and revised the original post.

Laurence Clark Crossen said...

I thought the Eastern Cougar (outside that Florida population) was supposed to have gone extinct by at latest the 1930's. After that there were probably no longer so many or so determined hunters.

omegaman66 said...

Outside of florida! The eastern cougar and the florida panther are scientifically different subspecies. Although I doubt the numerous subspecies of cougars actually rise to the level to be considered a subspecies.

The florida panther ranged as far as Arkansas... supposedly although it is amazing how so little dna ever same to support such elaborate subspecies maps of the cougar.

But that is not why I write. I doubt that outside of Florida any eastern subspecies survived unless it was in the Northeast Canada.

All cougars that have turned up in former Territory have turned out to be western cougars with only a couple of exceptions of florida panthers and of course south american escaped pets. Right at 99 percent have been male. Another indication that they are long range dispersers from established populations further west.

The news is not good for reestablishment. Reestablishment will come from western populations spreading east. Half the states they spread to give them no protection. But that isn't the problem because the other half do, even though no state agency will touch reintroduction because of stupid public fear.

No the problem with reestablishment is that in the Dakotas the cougars are being hunted past the point that they should be. Hunting there would be fine by me if it were done in a good scientific game management manner. But they are being reduced to the point that dispersers from the area have now been greatly reduced. Females are the key and a low low population in the black hills means dispersers will surely only be male and many fewer of them.

They are cutting off the supply of cougars available for recolonization, I believe just for that purpose. They know exactly what they are doing.

Matt Bille said...

Omega, I didn't know there were concerned that too much hunting was being allowed in the Dakotas. It's hard to accept it's being allowed so Eastern states won't see any range-expanding cougars. I'd have to see some evidence for that.

Matt Bille said...

Omega, I didn't know there were concerned that too much hunting was being allowed in the Dakotas. It's hard to accept it's being allowed so Eastern states won't see any range-expanding cougars. I'd have to see some evidence for that.

omegaman66 said...

My opinion on the why! I believe cougars are a headache that most states would rather not deal with. 1/2 the hunters are afraid of cougars. Darn near all the ranchers are afraid of cougars. Lots of pressure to keep them out.

Even west nebraska with it just established breeding population of about 30 cougars is apparently going to open up a hunting season on them. That is retarded.

30 individuals is far to small to be considered a viable population to support hunting. So why are they going to allow it? If not to stop the spread!

For over a DECADE the florida panther recovery plan has called for moving some out of south florida so all your eggs will not be in one basket. Well that has not happened even though there is no more room for florida panthers in south florida.

You can't stock pile them. Cougars self regulate. Last year was a record for cougars killed on the florida hwys. Why because all the new cougars MUST disperse to find a new home. Well there is no more room! Move till they get hit by a car!

Arkansas was the best place to introduce cougars according to one study. Arkansas said Heck No!

None of the states that were identified by the study (top ten areas) have come forward and accepted any florida panthers.

omegaman66 said...

Hey, how about you get me a copy of the video. I would love to see it and put it on my website if it is clearly a cougar!

Jay Cooney said...

Great article Matt. I have a big interest for relict Eastern Cougar reports, as it really hits home in my life due to the many sightings which have taken place nearby. I've even heard of a man who claims to have seen one down the road from the area where I live! I certainly think the population of deer and amount of wilderness in our area MAY be able to support a large cat, and I'm always on the look out for tracks.