Phantom of the Forest: Could the Cougar Again Haunt Eastern U.S. Woodlands?

Cougars are making their way eastward across the U.S.
The ghost cat, better known as the cougar, may make its way to eastern woodlands. (Photograph: Denis Callet)

The phantom, it’s been called, this big cat that now prowls western North and South America forests from the Yukon to Patagonia. It has dozens of monikers, from panther to puma to mountain lion, catamount to deer tiger to cougar.

However it may be known, could the feline, long gone from the U.S. East but for an isolated Florida panther subpopulation, be on the comeback trail? Biologists are finding some surprising answers.

A clue may lie in its name. The word cougar comes from a term meaning “false deer,” a phrase coined by the Tupi. These long-ago Amazonians had an instinctive understanding of a modern scientific idea: the lives of predators (in this case, cougars) and prey (deer) are intertwined.

Cougars, deer and humans: species whose existence is intertwined. (Photograph: Denis Callet)

Out of balance: Cougars, deer–and humans

Intertwined, but not in balance.

A century ago, the white-tailed deer that currently overrun eastern woodlands almost went extinct. By the early 20th century, unregulated hunting had taken down deer in much of their range. In the 1930s, the entire U.S. deer population numbered about 300,000.

Then conservation programs and controlled hunting were introduced. Recent estimates place U.S. deer numbers at 30 million. In many locales, white-tailed deer now exceed the environment’s carrying capacity.

It wasn’t only deer that were once in rifle sights. Early settlers believed the eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) was a danger to livestock and to humans, and a competitor for wild game. The cats were hunted until only their ghosts remained.

Eastern cougars once roamed as far north as southeastern Ontario, southern Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada; south to South Carolina; and west to Kentucky, Illinois and Michigan, according to the New Hampshire Wildlife Journal. —> Read More