Monday, June 10, 2013

The return of the cougar

There was an interesting article today in the science section of The New York Times about the return of the cougar to the eastern half of the continent. The species had been virtually exterminated east of the Rockies by 1900. The last one known to exist in Maine was killed in 1938.

The ones that remained in the western states, mainly in the Rocky Mountains, were treated as vermin and they could be shot on sight as late as the 1960s. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 put an end to that.

Scientists say that as early as 40 years ago the species started expanding its range. The life cycle of cougars demands that as young males reach adulthood, after about two years with their mothers, they must leave the area and find new places to settle and to find mates. Following that urge, the young males, as well as the young females, began to move east. Their numbers have steadily increased and there are now estimated to be as many as 30,000 in North America.

They have recolonized much of the Mid-West and there have been reports of sightings in Arkansas and Louisiana. My husband swears that he saw one crossing the road a few miles from our home late at night a few years ago. Of course, the area where we live is a hotbed of people who keep exotic animals in their backyards. Escaped tigers on the prowl are not unheard of, so it is possible that what he saw was an escaped or deliberately released pet. But it is also possible that it was an animal that arrived here under its own steam.

People generally seem to have positive feelings about the return of the cougar, AKA puma, mountain lion, panther, painter, or catamount, an attitude that the beleaguered gray wolf could only envy. It is likely though that as the big cats - seven feet long and up to 160 pounds - move into more thickly populated areas, they may come into conflict with humans once again and may again be persecuted. But for now, they are considered an undiluted success story of animal conservation in this country.

The big cats generally prey on big mammals such as elk, bighorn sheep, wild horses and burros, and even beaver, but their preference seems to be for deer and there are certainly plenty of those in this area and in much of the eastern part of the country. White-tailed deer have, in fact, become a plague on the land in many areas. As this top predator returns to those areas, we may see that deer population begin to decline and a more stable balance begin to be achieved.  It is, after all, Nature's way.

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