Opinion

Cougars Are Heading East. We Should Welcome Them.

Numerous cougar sightings were reported east of the Mississippi River last fall, encounters that have become more frequent in recent years. A trail camera glimpsed one in northern Minnesota, for instance, while authorities captured another in Springfield, Ill., after it had made its way there from Nebraska. Yet another was fatally struck by a car on I-88 west of Chicago.

Cougars once had the run of the continent, ranging far and wide. But they were virtually eliminated in the Eastern United States by the early 1900s (except for a small population that survives in Florida), victims of bounty hunting and habitat loss. In recent decades, their numbers in the Western United States, where they were also once targeted for eradication, have rebounded, and now these big cats, also known as mountain lions, panthers and pumas, are slowly moving east.

Newly published research by me and 12 colleagues has pinpointed over a dozen landscapes large enough to sustain cougars indefinitely in states that border or are east of the Mississippi. Their return would most likely result in healthier forests, safer roadways, less zoonotic disease and, in turn, healthier human communities.

This will all depend, of course, on whether we can learn to coexist with these top-tier carnivores. As a scientist who has studied these cats for years, I’m confident that we can. But it will require planning that must begin now, new state policies, public outreach, and education and support from the public for a creature that was once purposefully pushed toward oblivion.

Our team of researchers explored the habitat potential for cougars using factors important for cougar survival, like forest cover, distance to development and highways, human population density and how people perceive wildlife. Our research, which was published online last week in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, shows there is plenty of room for them.

Results revealed 17 areas in the Upper Midwest, Ozarks, Appalachia and New England, each at least or nearly twice the size of Yosemite National Park, that fit the bill. Of these, 13 had enough space to support long-term cougar populations. Another study separate from ours showed similar results.

It’s clear the Eastern United States has the space, and the right type of space, for cougars to exist comfortably — if we allow it. Our growing understanding of the cats and the benefits they provide to ecosystems, other wildlife and people should inform that decision.

Wary of humans, cougars feed mainly on deer and smaller prey. The risk of a cougar attack — on people or domestic animals — is extremely low, and almost zero with pragmatic precautions. Fewer than two dozen people have been killed by cougars in North America in the past 100 years. (Males range in size from 120 to 180 pounds, depending on where they live; females are much smaller, ranging from 70 to 110 pounds.) Scientists estimate a recolonization of the Eastern United States by cougars could reduce deer-vehicle collisions by 22 percent over 30 years, averting 21,400 human injuries, 155 human fatalities and over $2 billion in costs. The return of cougars to South Dakota in the 1990s, for example, reduced costs of deer-vehicle collisions by an estimated $1.1 million annually.

We now know that large carnivores greatly benefit entire ecosystems and hold those ecosystems together. Cougars interact with nearly 500 species, from elk to beetles. Evidence suggests these cats help control chronic wasting disease among deer and other wildlife diseases.

Coexisting with cougars will require education around perceived versus actual threats, what benefits the cats bring and how to be around them safely. This is especially important for people living on the front lines of a cougar comeback, like rural ranchers and small-livestock owners.

Eastern states must adopt policies that protect cougar habitats and address broader implications of living alongside these cats so that ones like those spotted in Illinois and Minnesota have somewhere to land. In part, this means state wildlife plans with protections that list the species as endangered, threatened or of greatest conservation need until their numbers are sufficient to reduce these protections.

Addressing the legitimate concerns of communities sharing habitat with cougars will help to ensure the successful, long-term existence of the species in the Eastern United States.

It took nearly 20 years for cougars to expand eastward across just 100 miles of human-dominated landscape between the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Pine Ridge area of Nebraska. Without actively reintroducing cougars in the East, it could take decades for the cats to do it themselves.

We could wait for the cats to make their way east or we could choose to support the cougars’ return by re-establishing them there, a prospect I never thought would be possible during my formative years as a scientist tramping through New England forests. Our research, however, points to areas in the Northeast that would support self-sustaining populations. These places are characterized by lower livestock densities than other areas we identified and are complemented by local people who view wildlife as more than a resource to be exploited.

However we proceed, these big cats are on their way back to their Eastern haunts. Midwest sightings are increasing, with hundreds of cougars spotted east of established populations over the past three decades. These trailblazers are often young males like the “Connecticut Cat,” which traveled 1,700 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Northeast in search of unclaimed territory and a mate. Females will follow more slowly, so we are unlikely to see frolicking cougar kittens in the East anytime soon.

Our new research offers reason for optimism that these big cats will have places to live when they return. There is still ample space for them to thrive in the East. We should take steps now to secure their future.

Mark Elbroch is the director of the puma program at Panthera, a nonprofit group focused on protecting the world’s wild cats and the ecosystems they inhabit, and the author “The Cougar Conundrum.”

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