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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Cougars in our backyards?


GIF Look, lion, mountain,     animated GIFs free download  The mountain lion is the most widespread of any large terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. 

Indigenous people called them cougars, pumas, shadow cats or ghost walkers. European settlers, meanwhile, eliminated them from most of their former territory in the East centuries ago. 

But in some parts of Canada they survived. Their descendants, found in New Brunswick and Quebec today, may be secretive but they aren’t ghosts, cases of mistaken identity or figments of our imaginations.

Cougars are highly efficient predators that are well adapted to life in the densely settled Northeast. This is especially true along Maine’s mid-coast region, where most of the state’s citizens live. It’s also where most of the state’s whitetails are concentrated. 

That’s one reason why the Atlantic Coast is perfect habitat for cougars.

Cougars are long-distance colonizers. Over the past 70 years dispersing pumas have been making their way south from the eastern provinces following rivers and streams or taking the coastal route. All young males and perhaps 60 percent of females leave their natal ranges seeking to establish home ranges of their own. 

Males can go more than 1,000 miles; females at least 800, although the average distances are much lower. Those in New Brunswick can easily reach southern New England.

It’s taken a long time for these animals to reoccupy the Northeast, almost as long as it’s taken in Nebraska, Iowa or Wisconsin, where cougars were eliminated in the past century. Examples of natural reproduction are limited. The arrival of more females from the north will increase the numbers of litters.

The discovery of a female with a kitten in Monmouth, Maine, in September 2000 was an important finding. Keel Kemper, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, made the track casts. Vermont had a similar incident. 

Persistent sightings of mothers and kittens across the Northeast and a few confirmations are clues that recolonization is underway. Credible reports of family groups suggest natural reproduction is occurring at higher rates than officials are willing to admit.

Skeptics who think pumas are rare in the East believe cougars will eventually arrive from the West to reoccupy the region in, say, 30 years. Interventionists want to speed up the process by releasing Western lions in the Northeast. New York said no and other states won’t accept this proposal either. 

But there is sufficient evidence to conclude that mountain lions are already recolonizing the region. Motorized reintroduction, however, is a distraction that threatens to delay cougar management in the region indefinitely. And stakeholders know it.

Long-term studies from 2001 to 2011 by Mark Gauthier and Sophie Bertrand in three National Parks confirmed the presence of several populations of cougars in New Brunswick and Quebec

Because it’s presently impossible to distinguish the eastern cougar from the other North American subspecies on the basis of DNA variation, Gauthier was unable to conclude whether these animals were remnants of a persisting eastern cougar population, escapees or dispersers from other North American populations. All three are possible.

Of the 19 positive identifications for pumas in Quebec and New Brunswick, 11 were North American haplotype and descend from a thousand generations of wild cougars in North America. Gauthier’s most recent estimate of the population in the study area was between 10 and 100 individual animals.

Given the vastness of the provinces, the volume of physical evidence, and the passage of time, it’s likely that the number of cougars in eastern Canada is higher.

In nearby Ontario, for instance, more than 500 examples of evidence has been discovered, including two photographs of large black cats thought to be melanistic jaguars. More than 30 confirmations of pumas have been made. 

Population estimates range from 300 to 800 animals. All these pumas can’t be pets or dispersed males from western states. Some natural reproduction must be taking place.

DNA studies by Melanie Culver revealed that all the subspecies in North America (one exception), including both the Florida panther and eastern cougar, are virtually indistinguishable. Many scientists accepted her landmark study. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFW) does not.

The mission of the USFW is to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. That mission no longer includes mountain lions in the Northeast, at least not native ones. 

Federal biologists contend that the eastern cougar is a separate subspecies but believe it has been extinct for 80 years. In January, the USFW removed the eastern cougar from the Endangered Species List. Federal protections afforded cougars in the region — any native ones that might be still around or those with mixed ancestry — are gone. It’s up to the states to decide what to do with them now.

At least one state wildlife agency in southern New England believes residents can’t co-exist with mountain lions. It favors euthanizing them. 

Having “nature’s perfect predator” around may actually be a good thing, though. A study published in 2016 described the benefits of cougars in the East in places such as Connecticut, where deer herds are out of control. Researchers think it could reduce collisions and save lives.

In northern New England, the issues are different. Bad winters and coyotes have drastically reduced the deer herd in Maine. Cougars kill coyotes on sight. And eat them. That’s a good thing for Maine’s whitetail hunters.

Michael Keveny’s 2012 Clark University study showed that most of the habitat in Massachusetts is suitable for these charismatic killers, including suburbs less than 10 miles from Boston and much of Cape Cod. Maine’s coastal regions are similar. It’s along the Atlantic Seaboard, not in the Allagash wilderness, where catamounts will find what they need to survive.

According to Wally Jukubas, a Maine biologist, “The Mid-coast region accounts for the biggest chunk of mountain lion sightings. It’s not where you’d expect them ... that is where the people are.”
The inland Maine mid-coast region still has plenty of deer, rabbits and turkey for prey.

At some point wildlife agencies in the East will be forced by circumstances to manage cougars. Maine is one step ahead of the game. In 2014 it hired Nathan Webb, a native son, who spent the first 12 years of his career monitoring mountain lions, wolves and bears in Alberta, as its carnivore specialist.

Maine’s wildlife officials have other options besides benign neglect, which other jurisdictions appear to be following. They may allow a hunting season in a few decades, when there is an adequate number of cougars to sustain a harvest. Sport hunting has drawbacks, however, such as increased levels of infanticide.

Hunters, needless to say, will support that proposal, and the state will benefit from the revenue. In the meantime, what state wildlife agencies need to do is give these predators adequate protection.

Agencies continue to favor the Black Hills of South Dakota as the place of origin for mountain lions in the Northeast — a thesis that has never received universal acceptance. Scientific research and evidence ranging from dead cougars to sightings by biologists point to eastern Canada as the likely source of our cougars.

If South Dakota can be ruled out as a primary “source” for cougars in New England, where are they coming from? Florida has too few dispersing panthers. The only other place with an existing population that could supply the Northeast is Canada.

Time and space are factors. St. Stephens, New Brunswick, is 2,000 miles closer to us than South Dakota. Pumas could walk to Bangor, Maine, in a month or two. Quebec, which has its own cougar population, could make it in even less time. 

Dispersers from the north also wouldn’t have to cross six major rivers and numerous highways on a journey that would take young pumas from the Black Hills more than two years to complete.

Do we have thousands of mountain lions roaming the forests of New England? Probably not, but we don’t need thousands of breeding pairs to make a comeback. The USFW’s threshold is three groups of 50 individuals. 

Alan Rabinowitz, chief science officer for Panthera, believes there is a “small population of mountain lions ... that are surviving in small numbers in wooded areas of the Northeast ... who are maintaining themselves and breeding.”

Canadian authorities aren’t certain which subspecies of cougar are found in the Maritimes and other eastern provinces, but the species is indisputably present in eastern Canada. Eastern cougars are the obvious choice, but there are migrants and pets to consider. Animals with mixed ancestry have been identified.

Mountain lions that established home ranges in Maine and other New England states may be the descendants of dispersing eastern cougars that survived in remote areas in Ontario, Nova Scotia or other eastern provinces during the past century.

Officially, the eastern cougar may be extinct in the United States, but if the ancestors of today’s big cats came from New Brunswick or Quebec, should they be considered an invasive species? Or close relatives of Maine cougars we should preserve and protect? That’s the real issue.

Bill Betty is a Richmond, R.I., resident. ecoRI News published a previous op-ed about mountain lions submitted by Betty in 2015.