Real-life cougar towns: American suburbs’ new wildlife threat

Since the 1970s, pumas have been staging a comeback -- and now they're moving east of the Mississippi

Topics: OnEarth.org, Cougars, Pumas, suburbs, Panthers, Baltimore,

Real-life cougar towns: American suburbs' new wildlife threat
This article originally appeared on OnEarth.org.

OnEarth
Across the United States, cougars are on the rebound, and city dwellers and suburbanites are getting a bit spooked by sightings of the 100-pound predators. Just last week, three cougars were reportedly seen outside of Baltimore, right on the heels of a sighting in the Washington, D.C., suburbs a month ago.

Since the 1970s, cougars—or mountain lions, pumas, panthers, catamounts, or whatever else you might call them—have been staging a comeback, growing to an estimated population of 30,000 in North America, though mainly west of the Mississippi. They were once widespread across much of the United States, including the Northeast, where they’re now considered officially extinct. Florida was home to another large population, but they’re listed as endangered in the Sunshine State (including by traffic accidents—see “Caught in the Headlights”).

Over the last decade, there have been many confirmed sightings of the Western subspecies of these cats moving east, towards habitats their eastern cousins once called home. Alongside this growing body of evidence are many more suspected but unconfirmed sightings in states including New YorkMassachusetts, and West Virginia. Cougars are becoming the new Big Foot, the focus of a spreading circle of unconfirmed encounters and folklore, complete with blurry video footage.



Cougar attacks are extremely rare, but they do happen—on Saturday, a captive cougar mauled a keeper at an Oregon wildllife sanctuary, and last month, aBritish Columbia man had to spear a cougar attacking his partner. Folks east of the Mississippi are already having to get used to coyotes as they spread eastward, taking over habitat once occupied by the now-endangered gray wolf. Could cougars also make a play for the niche of top predator?

Probably not, say experts. The biggest reason is simple geography. Young males might journey hundreds of miles to the East Coast in search of new territory, but establishing a sustainable cougar population requires larger numbers of males and females. “The biggest problem for them is a large gap in habitat between the eastern Dakotas and the northern parts of Minnesota—it’s mostly just farmland,” says Chris Wilmers, who runs the 
Puma Project at UC Santa Cruz and has analyzed the cat’s eastward expansion.

Unlike coyotes, which thrive in open prairie habitat, cougars need forest cover. “It’s not a question of whether individual animals can make it,” explains Wilmers. That obviously happens in rare circumstances. “It’s a question of whether a male and female both make it and find each other—and presumably that would have to happen a few times to get a population started.”

Even if cougars were to bridge the country’s breadbasket, their need for forested habitat suggests they won’t establish themselves in suburban and urban areas the way coyotes have. “Coyotes can live and hunt out on the prairie,” says John Kanta, a regional manager for the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department. “A mountain lion is an ambush predator. It needs that cover and that stealth to sneak in and pounce on their prey.”

That’s not to say the cats can’t go out and prowl the suburbs. The presence of small prey mammals, like raccoons, may sometimes draw cougars to suburban areas, but even there, the felines usually remain elusive. “We have some cats that can make their entire living in real close proximity to people and never have any negative interactions,” says Marc Kenyon, the cougar expert at the California Department of Fish and Game. “I know of at least one female who had two litters living essentially in peoples’ backyards in southern California. She would spend the better part of an afternoon sleeping in a tree in somebody’s yard.”

The cats manage to keep a low profile because they are solitary hunters and fiercely territorial. Instead of forming packs like coyotes or wolves, each cat requires its own range, which naturally controls the density of cougars in an area. “Males will kill other males coming into their territory,” Wilmers says, “and cubs.”

If a cougar does make itself a nuisance in a populated area, they’re easier to control than coyotes, which are capable of leading police through a two-day chase across Manhattan. A cougar, on the other hand, will almost invariably just go for the nearest tree, cornering itself for easy capture. Jeff Cann, a biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, often responds to cougar complaints in the central part of the state. “Mountain lions are pretty elusive,” he says. “A lot of times it’s possible to just allow the animal to go back to where it came from.”

Despite the fact that cougars pose little threat to humans, many states still manage their population through hunting—which also makes it more difficult for them to spread east. South Dakota’s Black Hills currently mark the eastern border of established cougar habitat, and hunting has been allowed there since 2005. John Kanta with the South Dakota wildfire agency says some hunters falsely blame the cats for drops in the region’s deer and elk populations. “Mountain lions are killing deer and elk,” he says, “but there are a lot of other things going on.” The real culprits of the deer decline, he explains, are drought and the over-issuing of hunting licenses.

Deer overpopulation, however, is a big problem back east. Could reducing white-tail deer populations—and deer-related auto accidents—make a potential cougar influx more appealing to Easterners? Car accidents involving deer kill about 200 people every year in the United States while, according to Kenyon, cougars have only been responsible for about 20 human deaths in the last 121 years. So far, no one seems to be suggesting that it might be a good thing to encourage courage migration(correction: there are some advocates of that idea), but perhaps the ones who should really be nervous aren’t suburbanites—but deer.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...