Missing Cats in the Monongahela
Cougar photos courtesy of Larry Master (masterimages.org ).
I always miss my cats when I travel; some of the high points of my life have been sightings of wild cats (lynx in Alaska, bobcats in Adirondacks and California, leopards and lions and cheetahs in Africa); and I dream, often, of seeing a cougar in the wild. I’ve seen their tracks, including at Big Cypress near beginning of this trek, and sadly I’ve seen (and respectfully removed) a dead puma hanging from a rancher’s fence in Argentina. Lately, though, cats have been on my mind even more than usual.
Reasons for this present preoccupation with panthers include seeing many parts of West Virginia where deer – deprived of their natural predators, cougars and wolves – are badly over-browsing the understory of hardwood forests.
On my hikes in Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Canaan Valley State Park, and in Otter Creek Wilderness, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Seneca Creek Backcountry, and nearby parts of Monongahela National Forest, I’m seeing many deer each day – all lovely animals, but in total too many herbivores – and I’m seeing forests from which the wildflowers and saplings have been eaten away. These forests are suffering at least a double indignity, of past heavy logging, and now such heavy browsing by deer that not much more than hay-scented and bracken fern and beech saplings remain in the understory.
Confirming these problems was a visit with Helen McGinnis (pictured below) of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. Helen has advanced degrees in biology, but her rare breadth of knowledge of Felis concolor, the cougar or panther or puma or mountain lion or catamount, is mostly from patiently gathering every bit of information about the big cat in the East, past and present, that can be gleaned from books, conversations, and the internet. Helen and her Cougar Rewilding colleagues have come to the conclusion that despite countless reported sightings of cougars in many eastern states in recent decades, and despite a few confirmations of the elusive cat in northeastern states, there is almost certainly not a breeding population of cougars in the eastern US north of Florida. Because we have not yet restored strong enough habitat connections, and because so many dispersing cougars get shot or killed by cars, active reintroduction will be needed – at least to “get them out of the box” of south Florida — if we are to see ecologically effective populations of this top predator anytime soon.
Helen explains that many sub-adult male cougars do disperse long distances, sometimes hundreds of miles, but they won’t stay in an area long if they find no females. Helen thinks dispersing cougars are often following river corridors, underscoring the importance of preserving and restoring broad riparian buffers along waterways wherever possible. Helen also reminds us that habitat connections, wildlife corridors, need to run east-west as well as north-south. At present, cougars seem to be trying to move eastward from western states more than northward from Florida or southward from Canada, largely because the American West has many more cougars than does south Florida or eastern Canada.
Madly, as the political pendulum has swung back to the right in the last couple years, anti-carnivore extremists have pressured state and federal agencies to permit more killing of cougars and wolves. Such fear-mongers are again spreading nonsense about wolves and cougars eating our children; even though the facts show that cars are the greatest threat to our children, and among animals, domestic dogs are the leading killers. (By the way, in my 4000+ miles of cycling, hiking, and paddling up the wilder parts of the East, I’ve seen about 20 carnivores, and all have been safe enjoyable encounters. In contrast, domestic dogs have attacked me several times – rural America’s unruly dogs hate bicyclists and thru-hikers!)
The Black Hills of South Dakota, once a source of dispersing cougars, may have lost nearly half its cougar population last year to a grossly excessive kill quota. As conservation writer George Wuerthner, www.wuerthnerphotography.com, has been saying for years, carnivores will remain imperiled and our wildlands mismanaged until state fish and game agencies are guided by conservation biology. The general aim of most wildlife managers in this country is not to restore and conserve the full range of biological diversity, as it should be, but to maximize numbers of animals that can be shot or caught. Cougars eat deer and wolves eat elk, so they are not tolerated. Somehow, conservationists must infiltrate and influence the land management and fish & game agencies, else our lands will continue to suffer the lack of top predators.
I’ve mentioned before some of the books that explain the science behind trophic cascades, and how removal of large carnivores is degrading our country’s natural heritage. Trophic Cascades, edited by John Terborgh and Jim Estes, and The Wolf’s Tooth, by Cristina Eisenberg, both published last year by Island Press, are especially important in the growing literature of land health.
Establishment of the proposed High Allegheny National Park (which I’ve discussed in earlier blogs, and which encompasses most of the mountains I’ve been exploring here in West Virginia) would not necessarily directly address the deer overpopulation problem, but in the long run it would help. The National Park Service (NPS) does not manage its lands for maximum game numbers, and has shown itself more open to predator reintroductions than have most other agencies. National Preserve designation for some of the lands would give NPS the flexibility to allow hunting where it was deemed biologically and socially desirable.
Of course, Wilderness Areas, which can be designated on Park Service or Forest Service (or FWS or BLM) land, being free of roads and mechanized intrusions, are the safest places for big wild creatures like cougars.
And the bigger the Wilderness, the safer it is. West Virginia has about 115,000 acres of designated Wilderness, thanks to the good work of groups like the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, www.wvhighlandsconservancy.org; but with minor road closures, it could have much more. From my ramblings, it appears that the Otter Creek, Dolly Sods, Roaring Plains, Laurel Fork, and Cranberry Wilderness Areas are all significantly smaller than they could and should be, due to the presence of unneeded Forest Service roads; and the Seneca Creek Backcountry has so far been denied Wilderness status, for political reasons.
My view from atop Spruce Knob, West Virginia’s highest point at 4,863 feet, and my hike up to it from Seneca Creek (It did not seem quite fair that other visitors had driven to the top in air-conditioned comfort!) suggested a landscape that is or soon could be wild enough to support a restored population of cougars – and a forest that urgently needs them. Returning to camp the long way, over Allegheny Mountain, I was stunned to find at about 4,300 feet on the ridge top one of the agencies’ responses to the deer over-browsing problem: a clear-cut replanted in an exotic forage crop. We don’t need “food plots” in our wildlands; we need cougars and wolves!
For the Wild,