OSWEGO — In an article published Jan. 8, SUNY Oswego biology faculty member Dr. John Laundre suggests that a forest preserve in the Adirondack Mountains can accommodate the reintroduction 150 to 350 cougars, challenging previous findings.
In “The Feasibility of Northeastern U.S. Supporting the Return of Cougars,” published in the international conservation journal Oryx, Laundre cites cougars’ successful return to the urban interface of western cities and compares their recovery to similarly developed habitats in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Big Cypress National Preserve of southern Florida.
In proposing to return the cougar to the giant New York State Forest Preserve, Laundre in his paper provides an updated re-evaluation of a 1981 study by emeritus SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry biologist Rainer Brocke, who concluded that road density would hinder any chance of cougar recovery to the 6-million-acre Adirondacks.
“Thirty years ago everyone thought cougars needed to live in the most remote places,” said Laundre, who studied the Western hemisphere’s second largest cat for 20 years in Idaho and Mexico. “But, they’ve demonstrated that they are as adaptable as coyotes.”
He cited the black bear’s comeback in New Jersey as further evidence of the viability of this kind of re-introduction.
He emphasized that a small population of cougars safely co-exists in the Santa Monica Mountains of West Los Angeles north of Malibu.
“There’s even a young, radio-collared male running around LA’s Griffith Park,” he noted. “That’s like taking up residence in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.”
Market hunting of prey like white-tailed deer nearly to extermination combined with state-sponsored predator bounty programs wiped out the cougar in the Adirondacks by the end of the 19th century.
Laundre noted that white-tailed deer have recovered to super-saturation, critically threatening forest regeneration throughout the state, a pending ecosystem collapse highlighted in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2011 State Forest Management Plan.
Laundre’s ecology research in Yellowstone after wolves were restored to the national park in 1995 was the first to identify how predator presence changes prey vigilance and browsing behavior.
“Cougars hunt at the edges of rivers and in forests that provide lots of cover,” said the author of the 2012 book “Phantoms of the Prairie: The Return of Cougars to the Midwest.” “Deer learn where they are in most danger from predators, which self-restricts where they feed; plants start coming back that the deer would normally just vacuum up.”
His groundbreaking Yellowstone study and subsequent research found that “wolves and cougars are, in a sense, shepherds of these wild herds of deer, keeping them from overgrazing the forest.”
Considering years of cougar predation studies, his Adirondack analysis suggests that cougars annually would take about 8 percent of the forest preserve’s estimated 50,000 to 80,000 white-tailed deer, a number he called easily sustainable in conjunction with the current hunter harvest and wildlife management protocols.
“If 5,000 cougars can co-exist with 37 million people in California, then the cougar’s ancestral home, our nation’s first wilderness, the Adirondacks, can certainly support them,” Laundre said.
A visiting instructor in SUNY Oswego’s department of biological sciences and an expert in wildlife ecology and conservation, Laundre is vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation.