[Special thanks to Lake Placid based nature conservation photographer Larry Master (www.masterimages.org) for permission to feature his photographs in this post.]
We ought to share our Adirondack home with at least three species of wild cats: Cougar, Lynx, and Bobcat. Unkindly, we have extirpated Cougar and Lynx, and allow Bobcat to be trapped and hunted every winter. I’ve written about wild cats previously in this blog (here and here), and wish to expand here on my plea for restoring the missing cats of our home region.
Our larger North American home is also home for Jaguar, Ocelot, Margay Cat, and Jaguarundi, in subtropical regions; but humans have greatly diminished populations of all these wild cats, through direct persecution and habitat destruction. Early human settlers of North America probably played major roles in the demise of American Lion, American Cheetah, and Saber-tooth Tiger. We may not have dared to hunt these great predators with our spears, but we overhunted – unto extinction – the great herbivores (from giant beavers the size of small cars to Woolly Mammoths of elephant kin) that were the predators’ food, with our seemingly primitive yet deadly weapons.
Our relations with cats, then, are strained, despite the great love many of us feel for our companion cats, and despite the great beauty most of us see in wild felines. Much of what I know about cats I’ve learned by watching our family cats and by tracking with Susan Morse, founder of one of our continent’s premier citizen science groups, Keeping Track (keepingtrack.org). Sue is among North America’s top wildlife trackers, and has introduced thousands of students, of all ages, to the joys of following wildlife and to the knowledge tracking can add to the natural history needed to conserve biodiversity.
Sue taught me about the precision jumps Bobcats and Cougars make to reach safe ground, descend cliffy terrain, or pounce on prey. A ledge-jumper myself, I am in awe of the leaps wild cats make in the course of their everyday travels and hunting. (I’ve an uncharacteristically commercial idea for some cool company, like Patagonia or Black Diamond: a beautiful athlete, wearing snowshoes, is leaping off a high ledge into deep snow; the photographer catches her half-way down, snow flying everywhere; the caption reads: Snow is fine. Air is essential. All proceeds of gear sold through this ad go to protecting wild cat habitat!)
Bobcats Fair Relatively Well
Like their larger distant cousins, Cougars (Puma concolor) and Bobcats (Felis rufus) are native to most of the East, but unlike Cougars and Lynx (Felis canadensis, which are native to much of North America’s boreal forest but have lost most of their habitat south of Canada), Bobcats are faring relatively well in the East in areas not too badly fragmented. Here at home in the Adirondacks, I’ll get lucky and see one of these elusive cats a few times a decade. Much more often, fairly regularly in winter, I find Bobcat tracks in snow on my frozen pond or nearby wetlands.
Despite being much smaller than Cougars (and comparable in size to Lynx, though without the long legs and big feet characteristic of the more boreal species), Bobcats do occasionally take deer, in winter in the north. Sue has documented Bobcat kills of White-tailed Deer, and vividly describes how the cats pounce from above on the neck of a deer slowed down by deep snow (probably usually a small, weak, sick, or aged deer, given the size imbalance), and sever the carotid artery to effect a quick kill.
With their greater size and power, Cougars are much more effective predators of deer, and can accomplish the life-exchanging sacrifice with a crushing bite to the spinal cord. Very few people ever witness the athletic prowess of wild North American cats hunting (just once, I had the thrill of watching a mother Bobcat lead her two kittens in stalking Wood Ducks in a swamp near my cabin), but to hear and see Sue describe the process with her words and photos is to almost be there. Sue feels that Cougars have good habitat and ample prey in many of the wilder parts of the East, but need safe travel corridors to return here.
As Will Stoltzenburg will describe in his upcoming book, Heart of a Lion, at least one heroic Cougar has made the incredible journey eastward from the Midwest in recent years. A young male Cougar in 2009 set out from the Black Hills of South Dakota, seeking a home territory with a mate as he wandered eastward. Wildlife camera photos and genetic evidence allowed biologists to roughly trace his route as he made his way to the Adirondacks, in winter of 2011. There, he likely found ample prey and good cover, but no mate, so he resumed traveling, until tragically hit and killed by a car in Connecticut later that year.
Many Adirondack residents are sure they’ve seen a Cougar, and this wild wanderer from the Black Hills may be the one some folks have seen. As I’ve written before here, we probably do have Cougars at least traveling through the Adirondacks occasionally (young males looking for mates, as with this Black Hills cat, or possibly an occasional released individual kept as a pet till he or she got too big), but we almost certainly do not have a breeding, functioning, preying population of Cougars in the US East north of Florida, where a small population of the great cats (there called Panthers) persists.
Is Reintroducing Lynx Feasible?
Lynx seem to be fairing a little better in the Northeast, with a sizable population in northern Maine and increased sightings of them in northern New Hampshire and Vermont. They belong here in the Adirondacks, too; but climate warming may make their recovery problematic. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation tried unsuccessfully two decades ago to restore Lynx to the Adirondacks, but most of the cats were quickly killed. They’d been trapped in the Yukon, where they had no familiarity with human dangers, like roads, cars, and farms; so quickly ran into troubles as they dispersed from their High Peaks release site.
Biologists have learned much about successful wild carnivore releases since then, in part through a successful Lynx recovery program in the Colorado Rockies, but our warming climate leaves in question whether another Lynx recovery here is feasible over the long run. Lynx are truly boreal species, depending on deep snow to gain an advantage over their prey, primarily Snowshoe Hare.
I personally would recommend that New Yorkers and New Englanders and their state wildlife departments end the killing seasons on Bobcats, study where and how Lynx recovery might be achievable, and begin working with local residents to prepare for a much needed reintroduction of Cougars to wilder parts of our region. Wildlife corridors are necessary but not sufficient for the protection and recovery of the apex predators we’ve unkindly eliminated. Along with conserving big wild connected habitats for them, we also need to actively reach out and welcome home these missing cats.
Note: The content in this blog post was repurposed and a revised version is included in John Davis’s book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor published by Essex Editions on Nov. 21, 2017. Learn more about the book and where to buy it at essexeditions.com. Watch the book trailer below.
- Cougar Watch Update from Protect the Adirondacks! (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Misplaced Fear of Cougars (and Other Predators) (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- We Should Welcome Cougars Back (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Restore the Adirondack Wolf (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Will Cougars Return to the Adirondacks? (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Cougar Sightings in and around Essex (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)