Rewilding cougars in the Maine woods

Posted:  Monday, July 3, 2017 - 11:00am
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On Wednesday, June 28, a five-member panel discussed the possibility of bringing, or rewilding, a permanent population of mountain lions, or cougars, to the East. The forum “Mountain Lions in Maine: Rewilding the Maine Woods” drew about 125 people to the Round Top Darrow’s Barn in Damariscotta.

William Stolzenburg, author of “Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America” was part of the panel. Stolzenburg’s book chronicles the true story of the two-year journey of a young cougar from South Dakota’s Black Hills to Greenwich, Connecticut.  

Bookspeak: Keeping the Voice of Literature Alive and In Print, organized the event. Nicole Olivier, Bookspeak’s director, introduced Stolzenburg and the rest of the panelists, which included moderator John Davis, co-founder of Wildlands Network and conservation director of the Adirondack Council; Peter McKinley, research ecologist and vice president of the Damariscotta River Association (DRA); Mark A. McCollough, an endangered species specialist biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Maine Field Office; and Christopher Spatz, president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation.

Panelists agreed that, although there have been many sightings of cougars in the East, most of these have not pointed to a permanent population. Of those that have been identified, a great many of them were former pets or captives. The only acknowledged Eastern cougar is the Florida panther, which has been on the endangered species list for a number of years. But recently the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission increased its population estimate to 230 adults, up from 180, and its place on the list is being reviewed.    

Davis opened the discussion by asking Stolzenburg what inspired him to write the book. The author said he wanted to honor the courage and tenacity of the young cougar, but he also wanted to use it as a vehicle to open discussion on rewilding cougars in the East, including areas in the Adirondacks and in Maine. 

He said one of the reasons to bring a ‘top’ predator (wolves are also in this category), back to the East is to help control deer populations; that would slow the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases. A cougar’s carnivore diet consists almost entirely of deer and elk meat, he said.

Stolzenburg provided an example of how cougars affect their environment by mentioning two canyons in Utah’s Zion National Park. He said that mule deer overpopulating one canyon not supportive of cougar habitat limits plant growth. The second canyon provides suitable habitat for cougars and, as a result, the mule deer population is smaller, but also healthier, and plant life is thriving.  

Davis asked McKinley to discuss the term population viability in regard to possible cougar rewilding in Maine.  

McKinley, whose specialty is songbirds, likens them to the cougar in terms of suitable habitat. “Population viability is the ability for a population to continue reproducing into the future. Habitat quality and the ability to connect to that habitat is a key component of population viability,” McKinley explained, adding that some questions to be considered might be, “Is the landscape ready? Are we socially ready? If we’re going to do this, what landscape is the most viable?”

Davis asked Stolzenburg, “Do you believe the cougar could make its way to the East Coast by itself?”

“Before the Connecticut cat, I thought no, because they’re being stopped along the way, “ Stolzenburg said. “It’s a possibility. But it’s taken a long time for a few to move from the Black Hills and establish a small population in Nebraska.  There is 500 miles of prairie between them and a habitat that could support them. They need help getting through the gauntlet.” And, he added, there’s animosity regarding these animals and it’s hard to change attitudes. “There’s a cultural wall. We need to start talking to the younger generation earlier and say, ‘Make up your own mind about this.’”   

“Since 1998, three people have been killed by cougars,” Spatz said, comparing that statistic to the large number of people hurt or killed on a frequent basis after hitting a deer on the highway and to the number of people maimed or killed by dogs.

McCollough said it would be up to individual states to decide whether or not to legally house a permanent population of cougars. At any rate, he said, it will take time. He likened current efforts to the decade of preparation and research it took to rewild wolves into Yellowstone National Park. Maine’s rugged landscape would suit the cougar, he said. “Biologically, it wouldn’t be hard to resettle them. They could adapt to the East,” he said.

 The panelists cited several ways to become involved in this and other wildlife projects, including becoming familiar with state wildlife management issues, working on finding a way for the state to use wildlife-watching revenues to fund non-game species, and purchasing Maine loon license plates, which send revenue to support endangered conservation in the state. Also, Stolzenburg said, “Teach your children well. Allow them to be curious and to be outside.”

The forum was sponsored in part by the DRA, the Pemaquid Watershed Association, the Medomak Valley Land Trust, Midcoast Conservancy and the 12 Rivers Conservation Initiative.