For Immediate Release, March 6, 2011 Cougar Rewilding Foundation
Contact: Christopher Spatz, (845) 658-9889
Dr. John Laundré, (315) 216-4370
Helen McGinnis (304) 227-4166
EASTERN COUGAR DECLARED EXTINCT:
EASTERN FORESTS FACING ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE
Harman, W.V. – With the eastern cougar subspecies declared extinct, and no federal plan for the recovery of the cougar east of the Rocky Mountains and north of the Carolinas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tolled a death-knell for eastern ecosystems, according to the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. The non-profit organization today announced that the cougar’s extermination in the East imperils the habitat of animals such as the endangered Karner Blue butterfly and the declining New England cottontail rabbit because of overbrowsing by superabundant white-tailed deer. Many plant species from Maine to Wisconsin and south to the Smoky Mountains, including trilliums, lady’s slippers and wild American ginseng, are at risk from uncontrolled deer herbivory that threatens forest regeneration, rare plants and habitat for wildlife.
“The potential collapse of our restored deciduous forests is the biggest underreported ecological crisis developing in the eastern third of the country,” said Christopher Spatz, president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation. “Step into your nearest woodlot, state or national forest. Notice the deer browse-line five-feet high, the missing seedlings and saplings, the carpets of ferns and invasive weeds that suppress tree-growth. Our forests are standing graveyards.”
“Declaring the cougar extinct in the East underscores the urgent need to restore them,” said Dr. John Laundré, Cougar Rewilding Foundation vice president and a pioneer in predator ecology. “Apex predators help forest regeneration by naturally shepherding prey. Cougar presence moves browsing deer around, which allows seedlings and saplings to mature and the forest to regenerate. Without predators, deer act like pastured cattle, eating everything to the ground.”
Beginning in 1995, Laundré and colleagues watched twenty-five reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone National Park shift 20,000 elk away from meadows and streams where the big ungulates had browsed without care – now potential ambush sites. Released from browsing pressure, willows and cottonwoods began to recover; beaver and fish, birds and butterflies followed. Researchers in Zion and Yosemite National Parks also documented similar beneficial effects from cougars preying on mule deer in remote park areas, compared to developed areas with little cougar presence where deer browsed unmolested.
A 1992 study found that 98 threatened or endangered plant species were damaged by deer. In Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, forty-six species of wildflowers that were present in 1970 were eliminated by 2004 due to overbrowsing. Replacement of the natural forest understory with deer-resistant ferns and invasive plants such as Japanese stilt grass has sharply reduced the numbers of songbirds that nest in the native vegetation. Japanese barberry, another invasive plant whose swift spread is facilitated by overbrowsing, provides cover for the proliferation of Lyme-disease carrying ticks.
“The Endangered Species Act was written with the overarching goal of conserving ecosystems on which threatened and endangered species depend,” said Spatz. “The eastern deciduous forest is dying before our eyes, on our watch because the cougar is gone. Endangered bald eagles and peregrine falcons were restored successfully to the East from western sources. By failing to provide an action plan for the recovery of a species critical to eastern ecosystems using western cougars, the Interior Department is abdicating its responsibility to conserve this ecosystem.”