OSWEGO — Dr. John Laundre, an adjunct member of SUNY Oswego’s biological sciences faculty, documents the return of cougars to the Midwest in a new book that looks at their past and sees potential for an Eastern return for these large predators.
“Phantoms of the Prairie: The Return of Cougars to the Midwest,” published recently by the University of Wisconsin Press, follows the return of the big cats to parts of South Dakota’s forested Black Hills and a piney area of the Nebraska panhandle.
Laundre said that he sees continuing migration of cougars — also know as mountain lions and pumas, among other monikers — from Western states.
“I first looked at the Midwest relative to where there is yet available habitat,” said Laundre, who has studied large predators since 1986. “Prey is no problem, because these states are just overrun with deer, as many states are. Are there also areas of low human contact? There are smaller areas nestled away in all the (Midwestern) states where they could live.”
Laundre has worked at SUNY Oswego since 2008, spent eight years at the Institute of Ecology A.C. in Durango, Mexico, and earlier taught at Idaho State University, where he earned his doctorate. Though his dissertation was on smaller predators — coyotes — Laundre said it is the large cats that have drawn most of his research interest.
“Predators in general interested me because of the (ecological) role they play,” he said. “Big cats are fascinating because most of them are solitary, most hunt on their own — yet they’re still able to take down these fairly large animals.”
Laundre said the new book shows how large predators are necessary to healthy forest ecology. Cougars hunt at the edges of rivers and in forests that provide lots of cover, he said. Prey such as deer learn where they are in most danger, which self-restricts where they feed.
“Plants start coming back that the deer would normally just vacuum up,” Laundre said. “Increasing numbers of studies show that deer are killing the forests. New York state alone has more than a million deer. Large predators such as cougars are, in a sense, shepherds of these wild herds of deer, keeping them from overgrazing the forest.”
Midwestern cougars have been in the news recently. Laundre, quoted in a St. Paul Pioneer Press news report and in a column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, maintained that over-hunting in South Dakota could make the breeding population there unsustainable, curtailing dispersal of the big cats in the Midwest.
Laundre acknowledged there are significant interest groups — ranchers, hunters, people who fear cougar attacks on children and pets — that would rather the big cats stay in the mountainous West, but he writes in his book that the majority favors their return.
“There are chapters of the book devoted to humans’ reaction,” Laundre said. “I talk about whether we should fear these animals. I look at basically a risk assessment of it. There’s no denying that people have been attacked by cougars, have been killed by cougars. But how does that compare with other risks we take daily? When we look at it, it’s on the bottom of the list.”
He pointed out that more people are killed in crashes with deer — 200 a year — than by all predators combined, and yet it is the isolated attack by a large predator that draws the headlines.
Currently working on a study of the Adirondacks for the feasibility of cougar reintroduction, Laundre said that he hopes his work and that of organizations such as the Cougar Rewilding Foundation will turn the tide in favor of coexistence with the big cats.