In my first post to this blog, I made the ecological case for returning the top predators, wolves and cougars, to the eastern United States. I argued that the eastern ecosystem needed their star actors to make it all work. In ending, I posed several questions that needed to be addressed beyond the ecological necessity of bringing back cougars and wolves. The first of these was: Can wolves and cougars still survive on the modern stage that is the Appalachians (the East) of today? Of all the subsequent questions regarding the possible return of these top predators to the east, this one should be first. Simply because IF they cannot survive in what is now the eastern forests, then all the subsequent questions are moot. In fact, this is often the first and final question people ask and then quickly answer with a resounding NO, end of discussion, end of debate. Many people argue that the East is just too settled, too populated with humans that these large predators need large areas to roam and could just not survive in the East. There is just not enough places for them to roam free. They would get killed on the too many roads that crisscross the forests. They would have to be killed when they would wander into the far reaching tentacles of suburbia and exurbia. There are just too many of us for many of them to survive.
Upon looking at the initial numbers, one might concede that these arguments are justified. Maybe the East is just too tame, too domesticated, too settled, for the return of wild creatures such as wolves and cougars. After all, is not the East the most densely populated area of the Nation? Do not cities string one after another along the East coast? A look from the night sky over the east would tend to support this; the east is light up like a fireworks display! Are not wolves and cougars animals of the wilderness? Where would wolves and cougars find room to live in such an area? Where would they find enough food to survive?
Obviously these are two questions and one misconception that need to be addressed to determine if wolves and cougars can live in the East. The first is the misconception: cougars and wolves are animals of the wilderness. Of all the misconceptions we have about wolves and cougars, this is the one that prevents us from even talking about their return to the East: no wilderness – no wolves and cougars. However, regardless of how often people play the “wilderness” card, it is indeed a misconception. When Europeans first came to the Americas, it did appear to be a “wilderness” by their standards. However, millions of people lived here before Europeans came, many in highly structured villages and “towns”. To them it was not a wilderness, it was as much a tame home to them as ours is to us today. And their home included wolves and cougars.
Additionally, wilderness or not, the reason cougars and wolves disappeared from the east was not so much because of the destruction of the “wilderness” but the fact that we purposely killed them off! The fact that we had to purposely kill them off attests to the fact that they WERE living along with us, as they did with the Native Americans. Even today, where humans tolerate their existence, wolves and cougars coexist with humans under less than wilderness standards. There are two thousand wolves in Minnesota, a densely populated Midwestern state. There are around 10 thousand cougars living all across the west, in states such as California, which are as densely populated as the East. And not just in the wilder areas, but near and within suburban and exurban areas. I studied cougars in an area surrounded by potato fields and overlooking the densely populated Salt Lake Valley of Utah. It is time to put this misconception to rest: Wolves and cougars don’t need wilderness to survive, just human tolerance of their presence.
Ok, they don’t need wilderness but they do need somewhere other than our backyard! Is there enough room where people don’t actually live for them to roam? Remember the night sky? Well apart from showing that we must be afraid of the dark, what do all those lights signify? Not much really, yes there are a lot of people and cities and towns in the East but there are also a lot of areas where few or no people live. In the West, many of the wolves and cougars there live on public lands, lands where there are few people and wildlife is given priority. Are there such lands in the East? I started tallying up the number and sizes of just Federal lands in the East, places such as Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, the White Mountain National Forest in Vermont and stopped when I reached over 10 million acres of federal protected lands in the East! The two thousand wolves in Minnesota live in an area only about 1.5 times larger! In my state of New York, the Adirondack State Park is over two times the size of Yellowstone National Park! And on top of all that, these areas are embedded within a contiguously connected forest ecosystem that is approximately two times larger than the often fragmented forested ecosystems of the West. Cougars and wolves could move from central Florida to northern Maine without ever leaving forest cover. That there is enough room for them in the East, there is no doubt.
Lastly, is there enough for them to eat? Anyone who is aware of what is happening to deer in the east would have no doubt that the answer is YES! New York alone has a million deer. In Pennsylvania, more deer are killed by cars than by human hunters. The list goes on and on across all the Eastern states. That there is enough prey for wolves and cougars to live on is also not in doubt.
Ok, so they are not wilderness obligates, there is enough room, and enough food for them. Why are we not bringing them back? Because there is so much evidence that there IS room and food for cougars and wolves in the East, one wonders if these arguments of the east not being wild enough or big enough for cougars and wolves are based not on fact but because many people just do not want them back. In my next post I will start to look at that.
About the Author
I was born and raised in the Midwest (Wisconsin) and received my bachelors and masters degrees there. I received my PhD from Idaho State University in 1979. Since then, I have been working in large mammal predator-prey ecology for over 30 years and have studied predators and their prey in the western U.S. and northern Mexico. My experience includes working with cougars, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, deer, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep. I have conducted one of the longest (17 years) studies of cougar ecology and behavior to date and have published over 15 scientific articles both on this work and work conducted in Mexico. I am the originator of the concept of the landscape of fear that proposed that fear of prey for their predators drives many, if not all ecological processes. The one important aspect of this concept is that predators become instrumental in maintaining the balance between prey species and their habitat, not so much by killing their prey but affecting how they use the landscape. I am the author of the newly published book,
Phantoms of the Prairie: The Return of Cougars to the Midwest that looks at the phenomenon of cougars actually moving back into the Great Plains region of the U.S. I am currently living in Upstate New York in Oswego where I am an adjunct faculty member at the SUNY Oswego and also active in issues concerning cougars in the Northeast. I am the vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation whose goal is the eventual re-establishment of viable cougar populations in the Eastern U.S.
Want to Learn More?
John Laundre (2013). The feasibility of the north-eastern USA supporting the return of the cougar Puma concolor Oryx, 47 (1), 96-104 DOI: 10.1017/S0030605311001475