Cougars, wolves, and other apex predators prevent herbivores like deer and elk from over-browsing succulent vegetation that provides habitat for songbirds, salamanders, and other wildlife. Throughout most of North America, people have eliminated these top predators over the last 200 years, and our forests and plant communities are in ecological trouble as a result.
In many areas, unnaturally abundant populations of deer are ravaging wildflowers and hardwood saplings. Some scientists warn that Eastern deciduous forests could fail to regenerate if cougar and wolf populations are not restored soon. The recovery of native carnivores becomes an even more urgent priority as human-induced global warming favors deer overpopulation and the local extinction of species sensitive to change.
Wildlands Network’s efforts to restore native cougars (also called pumas, panthers, mountain lions, and catamounts) in North America are focused on 2 primary goals: (1) strengthening protections for cougars in the West, and (2) facilitating the recovery of cougars in the wildland complexes of the Southeast Coastal Plain, the Appalachians, and the Adirondacks.
Contrary to what we might conclude from fairy tales and popular media, cougar attacks on people are extremely rare. In fact, deer and ticks are much more dangerous to humans—and both would become far less numerous if we were to restore native carnivores to our landscapes. Vehicle collisions with deer kill more than 200 Americans each year (and many more deer), and Lyme disease transmitted by ticks sickens tens of thousands of citizens annually.
Wildlands Network believes there is also a moral imperative to restore cougars to native habitats in North America. Cougars are beautiful, sensitive, and inspirational animals that have experienced untold cruelty and exploitation at the hands of humans. We now have an opportunity to reverse decades of wrongful treatment by welcoming cougars home. A recent 6-minute film made by WildFutures, titled The Secret Life of Mountain Lions, provides a rare glimpse into the family and social bonds of cougars.
The recovery of cougars in eastern North America will require our help. Female cougars generally settle near their mother’s home, but young males tend to disperse widely—sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles. The occasional wild cougar that shows up in the East is usually a young male in search of new territory. The tragic outcome of these heroic, long-distance dispersals from South Dakota or elsewhere is predictably that the cougar is hit by a car or shot. We feel it is past time to rewrite this story with a different ending.
One of the prerequisites to restoring cougars in the Lower 48 is to compel wildlife management agencies to conserve whole natural communities rather than to maximize deer and other wildlife populations to be “harvested” by hunters. Until we change the way states manage wildlife, wild predators will continue to be treated as vermin. Such a change will require more public education so that a critical mass of people understand and appreciate the importance of wild predators and speak out on their behalf. We must also build a stronger constituency for cougars that are trying to expand back into their historical range.
Our current priorities are to:
- organize a Cougar Summit in 2017. Our goal is to engage the groups most critical to cougar conservation in drafting a continental cougar conservation strategy;
- build support for cougars where they currently live. One of the most critical steps toward cougar recovery in the East is expanding Florida panther habitat to include at least central and/or northern Florida. Floridians love their panthers, but this enthusiasm needs to be better organized to overcome agricultural and development interests impeding panther recovery;
- reach out to state wildlife officials, urging them to respond sensibly if cougars return to their state. One of our collaborative partners, Cougar Rewilding Foundation, has drafted response protocols for dealing calmly with cougars that move into areas where people are no longer accustomed to having big cats as neighbors. We will help ensure that this protocol is made widely available so that both people and cougars remain safe;
- advance public policy on behalf of cougars. At the federal level, we are working to convince U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) to continue to protect cougars dispersing into the East. In 2016, we co-drafted a joint letter with Cougar Rewilding Foundation opposing the FWS’s scientifically flawed decision to delist the “Eastern Cougar” from the Endangered Species Act. In Utah—where cougars are relatively plentiful but aggressively hunted—we’re pushing to require wildlife agents to apply the best available science to cougar management. We are also collaborating with other conservation groups to reform state wildlife agencies elsewhere.
For more information about our Cougar Campaign and how to get involved, please contact John Davis, Wildway Advocate and Conservation Athlete, email@example.com.