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While walking through the West Virginian highlands, John Davis was struck by the character of the forest: all the trees were middle-aged and the ground was covered with ferns. There were almost no saplings or wildflowers.
“You could almost call them fern glades,” he said. “To the eye, they’re very pretty, but they’re biologically impoverished. These forests just aren’t regenerating themselves.”
The problem is that deer are overbrowsing. And the solution, Davis says, is to bring back the cougar.
A former conservation director of the Adirondack Council, Davis this week finished a 7,600-mile, 280-day journey from the southern tip of Florida to the eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec. He traveled mostly by foot, bike, and canoe.
One aim of TrekEast, sponsored by the Wildlands Network, was to promote the conservation of wild lands in the East for the sake of all native wildlife, including vanished species such as the cougar and the wolf. Davis favors reintroducing both predators to eastern states, but his top priority is the cougar. He feels that society would be more accepting of cougars than of wolves. Also, he noted that the coyote is partially filling the role of the wolf.
“I’d like to see the conservation community as a whole get behind cougar recovery,” Davis said.
Today, cougars reside nowhere in the East except southern Florida, according to government biologists. Near the beginning of his journey, Davis saw cougar tracks in the Big Cypress National Preserve, just north of the Everglades. He believes there is enough habitat for cougars to survive in many other places he visited, including the Florida Panhandle, the coastal plains of the Carolinas, the Smoky Mountains, the West Virginia highlands, and the Adirondacks.
The Cougar Rewilding Foundation also calls for restoring cougars to the East—and for the same reasons. Christopher Spatz, the foundation’s president, and John Laundre, a wildlife biologist, contend that cougars would curb overbrowsing not so much by killing deer but by forcing them to move around more and to avoid terrain where they might be vulnerable.
“We now can see that with the lack of the top predators, especially the cougar, we have a garden unattended, a flock uncontrolled. Eastern ecosystems are in jeopardy. The landscape of fear needs to be re-established for deer in the eastern forests,” they wrote in a recent article. “We need the shepherds back to not so much reduce the white-tail populations but to re-instill fear. It is only through this fear that deer will stop browsing unhindered across the eastern landscape, providing those refuges for tree seedlings, rare flowers and the herbaceous understory necessary for ground-nesting birds.”
Laundre also has argued in the Adirondack Explorer that the Adirondack Park has plenty of habitat to sustain a breeding population of cougars.
Davis said overbrowsing is less of a problem in the Adirondacks, in part because the severe winters act as a check on the deer population. But if the climate warms, as scientists are predicting, more deer will survive the winters and this could negatively impact the forests.
“Bringing the cougar back would be a good insurance policy for our forests,” he said.
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.