My wandering the West Champlain Hills and Wester Foothills (as I like to call the low mountains west of the West Champlain Hills but east of the High Peaks) produced plenty of prey evidence, and many other animals a big cat would not deign to eat. It being early May, that magical “green-up” time when leaves are unfurling and migratory birds freshly returned and lustily singing, I heard most of the Northern Forest’s common warblers, vireos, thrushes, and other songbirds. I saw Osprey, Great Blue Herons, Wood Ducks, Barred owls, Broad-winged Hawk, and many other raptors and waterfowl. Those birds suggest good habitat, even if they themselves are not cat-food.
White-tail Deer scat and tracks were plentiful enough, Cougars would surely be happy here. I saw four deer in my first day, plus a Porcupine, dead Snowshoe Hare (car-kill, on one of the roads I had to cross), and two Beavers. Almost always in my hundred-mile ramble through the eastern Adirondack foothills, I was in forested plentiful land, which would easily and beneficially support Cougars – and Wolves and other extirpated species – if we welcomed them home. I did have to cross five roads; and motor vehicles are a threat to wide-ranging animals like Cougars (and to that unlucky Snowshoe Hare). These roads are lightly enough used at night, though, that a Cougar could successfully cross – as Walker may well have done in 2010.
Cover and stalking places here are everywhere: trees, bushes, ledges … So, too, though, are natural openings: ponds, streams, lakes, Beaver meadows … The only times I saw other people in my four days of thinking like a big cat were when I had to walk stretches of road, to go around private land. Of course, Cougars ignore POSTED signs, so would not need to make such dangerous road detours. Large private timberlands in the Adirondacks are fragmented by skid and haul roads and cut areas, but are generally still primarily forested and thus at least passable to large carnivores.
Traversing Natural Forests
The more I ramble, the less I accept the common presumption that managed timberlands are better for big “game” than are preserved forests. Natural forests, like those I’m traversing now, have plenty of openings, disturbances, and early succession habitats – thanks to wind, ice, snow, and Beavers – but also have the deep cover and secure habitats shy, sensitive, and wide-ranging species need to thrive over the long run. Adirondack Park’s roughly even mix of no-cut Forest Preserve lands and managed timberlands, while not as safe as all Wilderness, could prove the best mix in the East for long-term wildlife prosperity.
With the many natural openings of a wild forest, vistas are many in the eastern Adirondacks, especially along big wetlands and ponds and atop rocky hills and small mountains. Pressed for time, and guessing that Walker often stayed in the lower lusher habitats, I climbed just three modest summits this ramble. Each revealed a landscape sufficiently wild to shelter Cougars – if people can learn to accept them – and perhaps wild enough to allow eventual Wolf recovery. A 1500 foot hill near Parch Pond (water and land protected by Eddy Foundation), adjacent to Hammond Pond Wild Forest, showed forever wild Forest Preserve juxtaposed with logged but still wooded timber company lands. Peaked Hill, just north of Paradox Lake, gave a grander view east toward Lake Champlain and Vermont’s Green Mountains beyond, with plenty of forest to hide a stealthy cat, at least on the New York side of Lake Champlain, likely on the Vermont side, too.
Fifth Peak in the Tongue Range above Lake George marked the culmination of my hike and the grandest view. Here, from several summit ledges, I could look west to the High Peaks, north from whence I’d come, and south through the Tongue Range. Most telling, I could look east over Lake George and to the similar size mountains (2000-2500’) on its east side. Walker may have gazed down on this same scene, and elected to continue south, rather than resuming his easterly ramble. Like Lake Champlain, Lake George is much longer north-south than it is wide west-east, but is wide enough in most places that a wandering Cougar (or Fisher, or Black Bear, or eventual Wolf…) might see it as an obstacle best circumnavigated.
Perhaps that is how Walker found himself, one December night of 2010, on the settled western shore of Lake George, looking for a safe way south past the towns and around the lake. There, near Lake George village, he happened to be spotted by the wife of a Department of Environmental Conservation officer, who knew enough to track the cat and gain evidence of his legitimate status as a young male Puma concolor, the first of his kind definitively confirmed in Adirondack Park in generations.
Here by Lake George I ended my ramble, for I was due to return to the office and call fellow carnivore advocates, in our ongoing effort to make the lives of these wild wanderers safer. Those of you who have already read Will Stolzenburg’s powerful book Heart of a Lion know the rest of the story; that is, the parts of it that Will and other researchers have been able to piece together.
Eastern Wilds Can Support a Cougar Population
My concluding message is this: There is enough good habitat in New York’s Adirondack Park to support a vibrant Cougar population, if our people can learn to coexist with big toothy animals. There also is ample habitat in some other relatively intact parts of the East, including the proposed Maine Woods National Park in Maine; Green and White Mountains National Forests in Vermont and New Hampshire; state and national forests in north-central and western Pennsylvania; Monongahela and George Washington NF and other public lands in West Virginia and Virginia; Daniel Boone NF in Kentucky; Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee; Bankhead and Talladega NFs in Alabama; and Ocala and Osceola NFs in Florida.
Paradoxically, though I want desperately to bring them home alive, the Adirondacks are not quite as hungry for Cougars as are many places southward, because we do not have as much of a problem of over-browsing by deer. We surely need them, though, and will be safer (from Lyme disease, other emerging zoonotic diseases, and car collisions with deer) once we welcome them home. Plus, with our weakening winters, Northern Forests may soon be as susceptible to over-browsing, in the absence of guardian predators, as are now forests of the Central and Southern Appalachians.
So again I vote with my feet: YES to Cougar recovery in the Adirondacks and far beyond, as soon as possible. Then can we rewilding advocates turn our attention to trickier animals, like Wolf, Wolverine, Lynx, Caribou, Elk, and Bison.