By nature, cougars have the largest range of non-human land mammals in the Western Hemisphere. They’re highly adaptable to a wide variety of habitats, from tropical rainforests and open grasslands to deserts and temperate mountains. But like other large carnivores, their populations and range have dwindled due to persecution by people.
Wildlands Network’s efforts to restore cougars (also called pumas, panthers, mountain lions, and catamounts) in North America focus on 2 primary goals: (1) strengthen protections for cougars in the U.S. West, and (2) facilitate the recovery of cougars in the wildlands complexes of the Southeast Coastal Plain, the Appalachians, and the Adirondacks.
Cougars are missing from eastern North America—with the exception of southern Florida, where a small, endangered population of roughly 200 panthers survives in forests and swamps.
In many areas of the East, 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, with climate change likely to further boost the overpopulation of deer.
Cougars in the West have long been targeted by trophy hunters and persecuted by ranchers who perceive them as a threat to livestock. But scientists have shown that killing adult cougars can destabilize cougar populations and cause social chaos, with inexperienced subadults more likely to come into conflict with humans.
Contrary to what we might conclude from 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 large 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.
Priorities for Cougars
Female cougars generally settle near their mother’s home, but young males tend to disperse widely—sometimes traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles. The occasional wild cougar that shows up in the East is usually a young male from the Midwest in search of new territory. The tragic outcome of these heroic, long-distance dispersals from South Dakota or elsewhere is that the cougar is hit by a car or shot. We believe 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 “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 trying to return to their historical range.
Our current priorities are to:
- enhance protections for Florida panthers and expand panther habitat beyond southern Florida. In 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) conducted a status review for its 2008 Florida Panther Recovery Plan. Wildlands Network submitted scientific recommendations during the review process, with highlights including the designation of critical habitat for Florida panthers across Florida and in other southern states, and the reintroduction of panthers to core habitats in northern Florida and southern Georgia.
- urge state wildlife officials 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 this protocol is made widely available so that both people and cougars remain safe.
- advance public policy on behalf of cougars. 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. The FWS declared the Eastern Cougar extinct in 2018, suggesting that it’s up to states and other sovereigns to consider the relocation or reintroduction of cougars in the Midwest and the East. We are currently working with colleagues to explore the possibility of introductions on tribal lands. In Utah—where cougars are aggressively hunted—we’re pushing to require wildlife agents to apply the best available science to cougar management.
Ultimately, the fate of cougars and other large carnivores will depend on fundamental changes in how such “nongame” species are managed by our state wildlife agencies. We are working with partners to advance a paradigm shift in how carnivores are managed—from “shoot on site vermin” to a protected status guided by the ecological benefits of these keystone species.