Bill Betty: Mountain lions can adapt well to parts of the Northeast

Mountain lion.

Mountain lion.

This is a longer version, with links, of a previous article by Mr. Betty.

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 expanding into the interior of North America 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 anyone’s imagination. Canadian scientists have identified them in multiple locations.  DNA samples were tested. The evidence is irrefutable.

Cougars are highly efficient predators that are well adapted to life in densely settled regions such as California where millions of people live. Thousands of cougars live there to. This is also true in the Northeast along Maine’s mid-coast region, where many of the state’s citizens make their home.  It’s also where most of Maine’s whitetail deer are concentrated.  That’s one major 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.

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

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.  Legendary tracker Ralph Pomeroy encountered pumas in western Massachusetts from 1948-56, including evidence of a family group.  Seventy years later his daughter sighted one. Provincial biologist Bruce Wright photographed tracks of a female and kittens in New Brunswick decades ago and recorded more than 450 reports of mountain lions in two provinces. In 1972, Wright estimated that 100 cougars were still present in the East.

 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 refused, and other states won’t accept this proposal either. 

Advocates believe 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 currently impossible to distinguish the eastern cougar from the other North American subspecies based on 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 earlier estimate of the population in the study area was between 10 and 100 individual animals. The most recent one for Quebec alone was 15.

 A casual examination of isolated findings outside the study areas, along with sighting report maps from Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario, suggest many more cougars are found elsewhere in the provinces.  Given the vastness of the provinces, the volume of physical evidence, and the passage of time, it’s likely that the number of cats in eastern Canada is much 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 in Ontario 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 (with 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 apparently 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. Other states may follow their lead.

Having “nature’s perfect predator” around may be a good thing.  A study published in 2016 by Prugh and Gilbert described the benefits of cougars in the East in places such as Connecticut, where deer herds are out of control. Researchers think the presence of mountain lions taking overpopulated whitetails will reduce vehicle/deer collisions in some areas and even save some lives.

In northern New England, the issues are different. Bad winters and 15,000 coyotes have drastically reduced the deer herd in Maine. Cougars kill plenty of deer, but they also kill coyotes. And they eat them. If pumas do that in Maine, it may benefit the state’s sport 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; abundant prey, adequate edge habitat and cover.

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 already one step ahead in 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. Perhaps they’ll consider a hunting season in a few decades, when there is a sufficient number of cougars to sustain a harvest. Sport hunting has drawbacks, however, such as increased levels of infanticide, and will be opposed in some quarters.

Hunters will undoubtedly support that proposal, and the state will benefit from the revenue. In the meantime, state wildlife agencies need to 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 someplace much closer as the likely source of our cougars.

If South Dakota isn’t the primary “source” for cougars in New England, where are they coming from? Florida has too few dispersing panthers to merit consideration. The only other place with an existing population that could supply the Northeast is Canada. And there is no longer any doubt that cougars are found there.

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.”

Mountain lions that established home ranges in Maine and other New England states after 1938 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.

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

Officially, the eastern cougar may be extinct in the United States, but the species is indisputably present in eastern Canada. 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, a well-known mountain lion expert who has researched and written about the big cats for years, lives in Richmond, R.I.