Tough Love for Bambi?
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 7, 2011
A week or two back, when the snow was a foot deep and food was scarce, I had 18 white tail deer in my yard on the Connecticut coast. So what’s the answer to deer overpopulation in the U.S. Northeast?
Sorry, it’s now officially extinct. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just removed the eastern cougar from its endangered species list, says Mark McCullough, a biologist there, because years of searching have turned up no evidence of its survival:
A breeding population of eastern cougars would almost certainly have left evidence of its existence, he said. Cats would have been hit by cars or caught in traps, left tracks in the snow or turned up on any of the hundreds of thousands of trail cameras that dot Eastern forests.
But researchers have come up empty.
The private Eastern Cougar Foundation, for example, spent a decade looking for evidence. Finding none, it changed its name to the Cougar Rewilding Foundation last year and shifted its focus from confirming sightings to advocating for the restoration of the big cat to its pre-colonial habitat. The wildlife service said it has no authority under the Endangered Species Act to reintroduce the mountain lion to the East.
The promising news is that the eastern cougar may actually be genetically identical to its western siblings, and they are rapidly expanding their range back eastward. If it happens, that could make running in the woods a lot more interesting for the deer (and maybe for us, too) and it might help restore a more natural balance of species. It may sound a little tough on poor Bambi. But scientific evidence demonstrates that species–and entire ecosystems–are better off when top predators are around to do their regrettable business.