National Cougar Recovery Plan 
Cougar Rewilding Foundation

Part II: Federal Jurisdiction, Broad Public Support, and the Ecological Imperative for a National Cougar Recovery Plan

By Christopher Spatz and Dr. John Laundre'

To provide a means by which the ecosystems upon which endangered and threatened species depend may be conserved.  Endangered Species Act

To protect and enhance our natural resources: our air, land and water; our wildlife, fish and forests and the ecosystems that sustain all life. Line 1, Mission Statement, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The Endangered Species Act and the mission statements of many state wildlife agencies clearly dictate how wildlife resources in the United States are supposed to be managed: for the health of the ecosystems that support them. But the goal of ecosystem conservation tied to predator recovery has rarely been met historically, predator recovery that we now understand as the engine driving biodiversity and ecosystem health.

This is especially true for the cougar. While recovered throughout much of their former western range, where studies in Zion, Yosemite and elswhere have demonstrated how cougar presence protects and shepherds ecosystem fecundity, cougars remain extirpated from the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. – extirpated where their presence can restore collapsing biodiversity. For a generation, confirmations in states where cougars had been lost for a century provided hope that Puma concolor might be on the verge of reclaiming some of her former range. Dispersers from pioneering colonies in the Dakotas brought the promise of potential natural recolonization and ecosystem recovery, not only to the forested reaches of the Midwest, but even to the reforested hills of the Appalachians. The rewilding of cougars to the East appeared to be on its way.

                         Prey density and cover are two of the primary requirements for cougar recovery. The eastern half of the U.S. 
                                      contains signficantly more of both deer and forest cover than habitat in the western half of the country.

However, in Part 1 of this series, the Cougar Rewilding Foundation detailed how cougar management developments in the prairie colonies were limiting the cougar’s ability to naturally recolonize Central North America. We showed you how the spectre of rising hunting quotas, open-hunting seasons and unlimited kill-zones around the source populations are cutting off both dispersal from and recruitment to these breeding colonies east of the Rockies. It appears that there is a deliberate goal – masquerading as ungulate protection and public safety issues – in the Dakotas and Wyoming to target breeding females in order to slash source populations and to stop any potential for recolonization east of the western plains.

In August, after estimating in 2010 a population of 140-160 adults in the South Dakota Black Hills, after taking 200 cats, including incidental kills during the previous two seasons, and after failing by 5 to meet their female subquota of 50 in 2012, SDGF&P conveniently raised their re-estimation of the population to 200 adults using a stew of cooked data. In October, based on this re-estimation, including 87 females, the SDGF&P game commisioners set the new quota at 100 and raised their female subquota to 70. While no existing wildlife management model comes close to such a protocal short of extermination, SDGF&P calls taking 80% of their female cougars sustainable.

Because of these draconian state sanctioned policies, the likelihood of female cougars establishing new breeding colonies in forested habitat east of the Great Plains remains a wishful fantasy.  To wit, without females to disperse to the Minnesota Boundary Waters or the Missouri Ozarks or the Michigan Upper Peninsula – states and regions where females have yet to be documented in twenty years of dispersal – the conspicuous body-count of young, dead males in the Central Mississippi Basin (and even into Connecticut) is a dead-end with respect to cougar recovery eastward.

Natural cougar recolonization and the promise of ecosystem recovery to the East are being thwarted by the very state agencies charged with protecting all of our wildlife and the ecosystems that sustain them.  In the conclusion of Part 1, we argued that state wildlife management, beholden to just 5% of their constituency, produce a skewed and ecologically unsustainable emphasis on game species to the detriment of ecosystem health – the celebrated, obsolete North American Wildlife Conservation Model. We suggested also how a fundamental management overhaul for all wildlife, and especially for predators, is necessary at the national level. 

How do we begin? Untangling the Gordian issue of separating state game management and its funding from state wildlife management and ecosystem recovery we’ll reserve for our next newsletter. Here, we’ll explore whether the citizens of the United States have the right to a National Recovery Plan for the cougar, and if so, what such a plan might look like.

The Law

Without mention in the Constitution, management over wildlife has been deeded loosely by Amendment 10 to the states.  Due to this loose interpretation, state game agencies have maintained control over cougar management, even on federal lands within each state.  However, Section 3 of Article 5, clearly states that, “The congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States….” Given that most cougar populations currently occupy federal “territories of the United States” (national parks, national forests, national monuments, federal wilderness and recreation areas, federal wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management holdings, etc), and that wildlife originating from federal lands remain federal property (Kleppe v. New Mexico), this article holds that as U.S. “property”, cougar management falls under federal jurisdiction, where every U.S. citizen has a say in their management. 

Public trust doctrine, in which wildlife  – like air and water – is considered a public resource, cedes state management to federal control on federal land. Thus, a National Cougar Recovery Plan on all federal lands, administered by federal agencies, should be mandated.

Public Cougar Support: Who Says No One Wants ’Em Here?

How do U.S. citizens feel about their cougars? It appears to be widely assumed by resource professionals and by journalists covering the cougar beat that the majority of the public don’t or won’t support cougar recovery, that the education necessary to restore cougars east of the Rockies faces a Sisyphean struggle. An Associated Press reporter covering the extinction announcement of the eastern cougar early in 2011 suggested as much late in an interview with the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. Before we could muster an argument in those waning moments, his suggestion – that cougar (and wolf) recovery in the East would face “fierce resistance” – appeared in the article’s conclusion.

A year earlier, a CRF officer had a chance meeting in the field with the now retired endangered species biologist and several of his colleagues from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  Following a quick exchange about deer overabundance and the need to restore the cougar’s shepherding presence, reinforced at their feet by the white-tail denuded understory, the blooms and tangles of native and non-native deer-resistant plants passing for said understory, and the limits of New York’s deer management policy, one biologist noted that she, “didn’t need more work (restoring cougars),” while another replied that the DEC, “needed to recruit more hunters.” The senior biologist then mentioned how he’d worked with another distinguished state biologist on a cougar recovery plan for the Adirondacks in the early ’80s, but concluded that, “no one wants ’em here. No one.”

Some eastern resource professionals have confided that they would love to see the cats back, but there’s no way that the existing agency mind-set catering largely to deer hunters would go for it. That however, is the opinion of the game management agencies, those who listen primarily to hunters (those who pay the agency bills, the agencies parrot; we’ll dismantle that argument later), and not to the general public.

Strikingly, just as we’ve seen with public support for wolf recovery, regional and national public attitude surveys show overwhelming support for the recovery of cougars.

Earlier in the year, MSNBC ran a story on the undiminished rate of unsubstantiated cougar reports in the Northeast since the announcement of the eastern cougar’s extinction, largely a carbon-copy of the sightings articles we’ve seen in town papers from Nova Scotia to Mississippi for decades. Part of the article did, however, discuss the ecological need to restore cougars to our collapsing eastern deciduous forests (the ultimate evidence of cougar absence), and MSNBC inserted that eco-detail niftily into the answer of a related poll: Should cougars be recolonized in the East?

An eye-popping 77% of 6,345 respondents answered, “Yes, they will help the ecosystem; we can learn to coexist.” It wasn’t a random sample, but the survey results mirrored precisely academic surveys for putting panthers back on the ground in north Florida. A Florida Advisory Council on Environmental Education (Duda, 1995) survey found that 77% of respondents in northern Florida supported “panther reintroductions in my or surrounding counties,” quelling the notion that big predator reintroductions become more controversial the closer they’re proposed to one’s backyard.  And even among groups considered reflexively opposed to big predator recovery, 75% of Florida hunters and anglers supported panther reintroductions.

Indeed, in states living with cougars, the public likes having them around in a big majority way: 90% in Colorado and Florida, 78% in Arizona near Saguaro National Park (both in and outside park boundaries), and 76% in Texas, the one state that has never stopped treating cougars as vermin. 56% of South Dakota citizens (p. 51) wished to see no change or an increase in the Black Hills National Forest cougar population, a percentage identical for Black Hills’ residents (p. 52). The Cougar Network’s 2009 survey of North Dakota and Kentucky residents found “generally positive opinions about mountain lions.”  

Given such support for cougars and their recovery, how have federal agencies responded?

The Federal Response: Huh?

As mentioned above, despite wide public support for the necessary goal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) delisting through reintroductions in the Panther Recovery Plan, the Department of Interior rejected in 2011 the petition initiated by the Cougar Rewilding Foundation to restore panthers to the Greater Okefenokee Ecosystem in southern Georgia.

In its exhaustive 2011 review determining the cougar’s extinct status in the East, the USFWS failed to provide a recov­ery plan for returning cougars to their eastern range (by USFWS estimation extending all the way to Illinois), assuming that recovering cougar populations in the East (as opposed to recovering eastern cougars) with western surrogates isn’t justified, despite their extirpated status, despite the growing scientific evidence linking ecosystem collapse to predator loss, despite widespread evidence of ecosystem arrest in eastern forests from the absence of predation pressure on white-tailed deer and feral hogs. This, though the USFWS successfully reintroduced peregrine falcons and bald eagles to the East from western subspecies, while eastern state wildlife agencies have successfully reintroduced elk and bobcats, and made an attempt to introduce lynx in the Adirondacks, from western sources.  In New York State, a predator, the fisher, was restored in the Catskills and Shawangunks to control tree-damaging porcupine populations. If we can use western subspecies to recover “extinct” eastern subspecies, and predators to control overabudant prey species, then why not use western cougars to recover cougar populations and ecosystem functioning in the East?

This is especially the case since our former board member, Melanie Culver’s genetic research, found that all cougars in North America belong to the same subspecies.  Thus, it appears that the public wants cougar recovery and that there is no biological reason not to restore them. Consequently, a federal recovery plan would appear to be in order.

Predator Shepherds: An Ecological Imperative

The question remains: why would we want to recover cougar populations to the East?  The ESA was written with the overarching goal of conserving ecosystems on which threatened and endangered species depend. A 1992 study found that deer were damaging 98 threatened or endangered plants (surely, a lengthier list in 2012). A 2008 overview by the U.S. Forest Service concluded that white-tail overabundance is a “seri­ous forest health” issue in 20 northeastern and midwestern states. And feral hogs have long suppressed longleaf pine regeneration throughout the South.

Collapsing eastern ecosystems like the deciduous forests of the Appalachians, and the longleaf pine forests of the coastal Southeast evolved through cougar presence. Cougars are critical shepherds of forest health. Cougar recovery and ecosystem conservation are mutually dependent. Recovering cougars to all of their former range is a conservation priority of national concern. Cougar recovery is an ecological imperative.

The case can be made from the ESA – “the means by which ecosystems…may be conserved “ – that the USFWS and the U.S. Forest Service are mandated to consider the crashing biodiversity, the critically arrested forest regeneration and weed species swamping, and adopt the body of peer-reviewed science proving (fifteen years in, now) ecosystem regeneration from predator presence, and restore cougars as the primary engine for the recovery of terrestrial ecosystems on federal lands throughout the cougar’s entire former range – from Maine to Minnesota, from Oklahoma to Georgia.

But at what level is cougar recovery needed for the health of ecosystems? How many cougars are we considering? What is an ecologically effective number of cougars?  We’re not talking about the kind of numbers that are enough to sustain genetic viability for one subspecies for 100 years, 240 individuals in two distinct but genetically contiguous populations, the target goal for panther delisting from the ESA. It’s great for the panther (well, it would be should the USFWS ever get around to fulfilling the panther reintroduction mandate), but myopic for the longleaf pine ecosystem that panthers can sustain.  

How about recovering enough cougars to maintain baseline flora, fauna and ecosystem biodiversity throughout their native range, in perpetuity?

California Dreaming

We’re talking about cougars at densities like California’s: unhunted, free to roam, breed, recolonize and shepherd ecosystems beginning on all federal lands east of the Rockies, with reasonable provisions in place for the public to protect themselves, their pets and their livestock, including compensation for those rare depredations. We're not against potential hunting seasons as the population recovers state-by-state, but given the current, deteriorating, even disgraceful state of state-managed cougars seasons, we'll waive that discussion pending considerable evidence to the contrary (Washington State's newly adopted 14% annual take is a potential hunting model).

As we’ve been pointing out for some time, California contains both an area and a human population comparable to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia combined, with less forested habitat.
                     ME, NH, VT, NY, PA, and WV: 179,150 square miles; 37, 336,250 human population
                                                            California: 163, 696 square miles; 37,691,912 human population

With the number of deer and the density of forest cover, based on the 5,000ish cats coexisting in California, along the edges of Oakland and San Francisco and even within the Los Angeles city limits, eastern states like Georgia, Virginia and New York (each with over one million white-tailed deer), could each support 1,000 cougars. No kidding.

Our Modest Proposal

The USFWS, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, must establish and implement a national recovery plan for the cougar:

1) Providing federal protections with target recovery numbers for recolonizing cougars found east of Texas and the Prairie States, numbers enough to maintain minimum baselines for flora, fauna and ecosystem health and biodiversity.
2) Fulfill federal reintroduction mandates to the Southeast in the Florida pan­ther recovery plan where wide public support for and recovery locations have already been determined.
3) Begin conducting habitat assessments, public attitude surveys and public education campaigns for cougar reintroductions to federal and state lands in the East including national parks, forests, wilderness and recreation areas and wildlife refuges, and big state forest preserves like the Catskills and the Adirondacks.

Our national parks, especially, are chartered to recover and sustain their natural heritage of flora and fauna. Shenan­doah and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks, abutting or located in close proximity to several national forests, contain contiguous federal lands larger than the successful '93-'95 test restoration of nineteen Texas and captive-reared pumas to the Greater Okefenokee-Osceola Ecosystem along the Georgia-Florida state line. That test reintroduction and recapture of the cats revealed that cougars can do just fine – with minimal conflict – coexisting with us in eastern landscapes.

And, California, where cougar hunting was twice-trounced by voter referendum – the pinnacle of public cougar support – has demonstrated that we can coexist with cougars at carrying capacity, at saturated ecological densities, including urban interfaces. Indeed, one misguided, misinformed western state cougar management plan after another has failed to prove with hunting what California has proven for twenty years without hunting: that maintaining cougars at carrying capacity – allowing the cats to police themselves, while taking out problem individuals at the source – is the most successful way not only to protect pets, livestock and the public from cougars, but that the least invasive method is the safest method to manage cougar populations. 

                          Though the New York Metropolitan area is no one's idea of cougar habitat and a potential
                                   location for restorations, the simalarly forested hills surrounding California's Bay Area 
                                   provide ample habitat for cougars. 

California, the state with both the highest cougar density and largest human population, the only western state without cougar hunting, has the lowest ratio of cougar conflicts.

Turns out people, like ecosystems, do the best with the most cougars around. And Mattson et al. last year determined that cougar incidents have been declining for a decade, with just 3 deaths since 1998. 1 in 150 animal-related deaths is from a cougar. The biggest animal killer, by far? Vehicle collisions with deer. Is there a lower form of accidental death statistically than death by cougar?

Broad public support, two decades of coexistence and management experience, and an ecological imperative: Is there really any reason, then, not to establish a National Cougar Recovery Plan, and restore cougars to all of their former range?

Splitting the Pie

In this day of shrinking government, when calls for slashing state and federal spending are de rigueur, we’re well aware of the arguments to reduce government wildlife funding (except, it seems, for the welfare guns at Wildlife Services), especially funding for recovering big predators. In Part III of this series, we’ll take a hard look at how state game agencies and their increasingly malfeasant cougar management policies in the West, and equally malfeasant white-tailed deer management in the East, have been funded for eighty years. We’ll look at who’s really paying the brunt of those hallowed gear excise taxes (hint: think handguns, not shotguns), and how most state game agencies would falter without, wait for it, matching federal funding – matching tax dollars provided by every U.S. taxpayer.

Seems hunters don’t own the financial key that they and the agencies believe to be their special lock on state wildlife management. In Part III, we’ll propose suggestions for separating game species from non-game wildlife funding, and how to pay for a National Cougar Recovery Plan. Turns out California, once again, has recently pointed the way.

Thank you to artist Rod McGiver for the use of his Shadows image on our masthead.
Maps by John Laundre'.

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