Op-Ed: Why We Should Leave Cougars Where They Are

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Cougar sits among leaves and branches.

The western cougar, or mountain lion. 

Courtesy of California Department of Fish and Game/Flickr


This opinion piece is written by Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, a conservation science research fellow with the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.

Last week, the eastern puma, also known as the cougar, was declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The subspecies Felis concolor couguar probably disappeared at least 70 years ago, but in 2018 the USFWS is finally striking it from the federal list of endangered wildlife. 

In an effort to turn disappointing news into an opportunity, some conservation organizations have suggested relocating western cougars (or mountain lions, as we call them in the West) to eastern locales such as the Adirondacks in upstate New York. They suggest this would be a way to reconstruct historic food webs, enhance the functioning of our ecosystems, and increase cougar populations nationwide. 

I argue we need to leave cougars where they are—and focus our energies on better protecting them in their current habitats. 

 

Mountain lion prowls a hilltop at night, overlooking the lights of Los Angeles.

A female mountain lion in the hills above Los Angeles, California.

Courtesy of National Park Service/Flickr


To be sure, there are benefits of having large carnivores like cougars in East Coast ecosystems: these predators reduce the threat of Lyme disease by keeping tick-carrying deer populations in check, for example. But as conservationists and citizens, it’s our responsibility to set these species up for success. And just because the Adirondacks were once home to large populations of cougars, we shouldn’t assume the area is still an ecosystem where they can thrive.

My years of studying black bear ecology with a focus on human-bear conflicts have shown me that public education and awareness are not enough to ensure a receptive attitude among people living in areas that are also known wildlife habitats. For example, human-bear conflict in the eastern U.S. is at an all-time high. In terms of “managing” these conflicts, support for hunting has increased faster than support for other approaches, including changing human behavior or avoiding encroaching on bear habitats. In terms of public perception of conflict and risk, are cougars so different from black bears?

Creating a carnivore-friendly landscape in the eastern U.S. will take time, effort, and lots of compromise. For one, conservation professionals and policy makers in the eastern U.S. will need to have a very serious conversation about U.S. roadways. Road-related mortality rates for large carnivores in the U.S. are high, which doesn’t bode well for cougars. In 2011, when a lone male western cougar made his way to eastern Connecticut from South Dakota, he was hit by a car and killed—tragically demonstrating a major obstacle for relocation to the East.

So rather than repopulating the Adirondacks with cougars, we need to focus our efforts on where today’s cougars are: the West and southern Florida. People who live within the western cougar's range are the lynchpin in any hope we have for conservation, and it’s critical for us to create sustainable habitats for cougars where they live now before we find they’re disappearing there, too.

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