north american cougar

A North American cougar. (LARRY MASTER PHOTO)

Conservation groups say the mountain lion should be returned to the Eastern United States in the wake of the federal government's decision to declare them extinct.

Doing so, however, would be a huge endeavor.

A New Hampshire Fish and Game biologist said the state would have concerns about any proposal to bring a large predator to the Granite State.

On Jan. 22, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it plans to remove the eastern cougar from the federal list of threatened and endangered species on Feb. 22. A press release notes that most native cougars were essentially wiped out in the 1800s by either being killed directly or by loss of habitat. One cougar was killed in Maine in 1938. The last cougar in New Hampshire was shot dead in 1857 down on the seacoast.

A small population of East Coast cougars are in Florida and are unaffected by the change in the federal designation.

"Data from researchers, 21 states and Canadian provinces across the subspecies’ former eastern North American range indicate the eastern cougar likely disappeared forever at least 70 years ago," states the press release.

"Extinct animals and plants cannot be protected under the Endangered Species Act, which is meant to recover imperiled wildlife and plants and their habitats. Additionally, under law, the eastern cougar listing cannot be used as a method to protect other cougars."

Cougars that have been spotted in Eastern states either came up from Florida or escaped from captivity. Some cougars from Western states have made it to the Midwest. One male cat traveled from South Dakota to Connecticut, where it was hit by a car. Females don't travel that far. The closest breeding population is in Nebraska and Saskatchewan, Canada.

Cougar Rewilding Foundation, based in West Virginia, is an organization whose mission is to "facilitate the recovery of the cougar in suitable wild habitat east of the Rocky Mountains." 

Its president is Christopher Spatz, who lives in Rosendale, N.Y., spoke with the Sun on Jan. 29. He said the organization started as the Eastern Cougar Foundation of West Virginia in 1998 with the ultimately unsuccessful goal of finding evidence of breeding east coast cougar populations.

"Around 2008, we decided to shift our focus from trying to find evidence of them to bringing them back," said Spatz. "That's taken the form of talking to state and federal agencies about both protecting cats that are trying to recolonize from the Western prairie states into the Midwest and the East Coast and the possibility of reintroduction to places like Great Smokey Mountain National Park, the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests on the Virginia/West Virginia border and places like the Adirondacks and the North Maine Woods."

The Center for Biological Diversity, which is based in Arizona, also believes states like New York should bring in the cats.

"Eastern states should move quickly to reintroduce these magnificent animals, which play such a critical role in controlling deer herds," said the center's director Michael Robinson in a press release that also said there is suitable habitat in New England.

Spatz says there would be plenty of room in the White Mountain National Forest for cougars, his organization has no specific proposals to bring the cats there. He said the WMNF is a potential location.

"The White Mountains are mentioned in the same breath as the Green Mountains in Vermont and the North Maine Woods, and the Adirondacks," said Spatz, adding the Adirondacks would be the best place because it's much larger than the others.

"If say, New York State would actually consider it, they would need to do that with the blessing of other states because if the population gets large enough they are going to expand into other states and no state is going to take this on unilaterally."

New Hampshire Fish and Game Biologist Patrick Tate said the change in the cougar's federal status doesn't change anything about the way New Hampshire handles its wildlife.

"It's difficult to manage for a species that isn't here," said Tate.

That said there is a state law on the books from the 1960s that bars people from killing cougars except for instances of self-defense or protecting property. The law was apparently passed after some sightings were reported, said Tate.

Asked about the possibility of introducing Western cats to the state, Tate said he hesitated to comment on that because the last time it was proposed to bring a large predator to New Hampshire, the Legislature passed a law barring wolves from being brought here.

"Reintroducing any large predator like that would require a huge educational campaign and a number of public hearing, public input and some type of management plan," said Tate, adding he couldn't speak for what Fish and Game would support or not.

The average male cougar is about 130 pounds but can get to about 200 pounds. Females are smaller. The cougars in North America are all the same genetically.

The rewilding foundation has been worked on action plans in Vermont and New York State in terms of how they could be allowed to be recolonize or be reintroduced. Vermont has a plan, but New York chose not to pursue it.

"Nobody wants to reintroduce them, so we didn't get anywhere with that," said Spatz, adding the federal government believes it no longer has an obligation to try and recover cougars on the East Coast.

Spatz said it's even more unlikely that a small state like New Hampshire or Vermont would be interested because there's less habitat. That said, they don't need much if any wilderness.

"There's one living right in the middle of Los Angeles," said Spatz. "We know we can live with them."

Tate said what the foundation seeks to do sounds like introducing the Western cougar to the East, not reintroducing cougars to the state.

No one can release animals in New Hampshire without a permit, and every permit is carefully vetted by the state, said Tate.

"You can imagine wanting to release a large predator onto the landscape would require a significant amount of review and input," said Tate. 

Spatz agrees that future introduction effort would require a vigorous public input and education. Several cougars, one male and a few females, would be released into a large enclosure to get them used to the area.

Spatz said states have some incentives to welcome cougars. Predators like wolves bring in tens of millions of dollars in tourist revenue each year in Yellowstone. The wildlife refuge in Florida gets about $8 million per year in tourism. In fact, in some states, wildlife watching is bigger business than hunting and fishing.

Cougars attack people about four times per year. Three people have been killed by mountain lions since 1998, said Spatz.

Tate said there is "sufficient prey" in New Hampshire to support cougars. 

"The issue becomes potential negative interactions with humans," said Tate, adding that would be true in the White Mountains which are a popular recreation destination.

If you believe you have seen a mountain lion and want to report it to NH Fish and Game, you are urged to contact the Wildlife Division at (603) 271-2461 or wildlife@wildlife.nh.gov to request an observation report form.

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