The deer population in the Northeast has exploded. Some maintain that one of the reasons is due to the previous housing boom. During the boom, thousands of acres of land were cleared with the intentions of building homes that were never built. This cleared land permitted sunlight to hit the ground, which facilitated grass growth leading to the population explosion.
There are more deer in the Northeast today than there were when the settlers first arrived. Although development and land clearing may be partially to blame, we cannot forget the fact that humans also extirpated the main predator, mountain lions (Puma concolor). Due to the over-explosion of deer, the lack of natural predators and the inability of the land to sustain them, many of these animals will die slow deaths of starvation. Sick deer may also spread disease which can adversely affect the rest of the population. Although hunting may eliminate a small portion of this manmade suffering, some people claim there is a better way; that is to reintroduce their natural predators.
It should be noted, as it has been on this blog in the past,that proof of the positive effects of hunting limiting population growth is scarce at best. All we do know is when a hunter makes a kill he has removed that animal from being able to procreate any further. This post is in no way intended to support hunting. Rather it is to question the act of species introduction, a practice which has been historically devastating not only to the environment but also to the introduced animals, sometimes leading to increased animosity and re-extirpation of a species . This is why I disagree with the re-introduction suggestion.
First, many animals such as mountain lions tend to be locale specific; that is they have specifically evolved to live in their local environment. An example is the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi ). That is not to say the animals are unable to adapt if introduced, but with that adaptation may come devastating results to the environment, people or the re-introduced species.
The closest American breeding population of cougars to the Northeast is in Western North and South Dakota (not including the 100 Florida Panthers which are left and have been purposefully interbred with West Texas panthers in an attempt to curb inbreeding of the small surviving population within Big Cypress National Park). This is an entirely different natural ecosystem than that of the Northeast. The animals in that part of the country may have immunities to diseases which animals in the Northeast do not have. They may also not have immunities to diseases that are in this part of the country. Either way, if that is the case it could be environmentally devastating to the Northeast or individually devastating and pointless to the introduced cats. But what if it is neither?
The cats found in the west have specifically adapted to that region of the country. They are locale specific. The prairies of South Dakota offer much different terrain than the Catskills or the Berkshires or Westchester County. Should animal advocates really think it is just to remove an animal with a natural history in that part of the country to another which it might not proliferate in? Could this be counterproductive to their cause?
Another predicament is the fact that mountain lions are opportunistic feeders. Deer in the Northeast may no longer have their natural fear of the mountain lion due to the fact that the predator has been absent for generations. In regions where the mountain lion is still prevalent, many prey animals graze at night in order to make it that much more difficult for the lion to attack. However, it is not uncommon in the Northeast to have deer grazing on peoples lawns during the day. In fact, certain books on the subject such as “The Beast in the Garden” argue that many populations of deer have become diurnal due to the fact that they have been absent of predation for so long. That’s not to say populations no longer feed at night, just more and more are seen feeding during the day. Therefore, the deer grazes on the lawn during the day, where is an opportunistic mountain lion going to be hunting? That’s right, on peoples lawns, on the sides of highways (which has proven every year to be devastating to panther populations in Florida) and in parks. These are all areas used by people. Is it foreseeable that this may not be entirely welcomed by the general public? Is it likely that many people will not want their children playing in their backyards any longer? In reality, how long will it take before these re-introduced lions are also extirpated and killed as a failed experiment? I predict after the first child is attacked by the introduced predator, there will be a vicious hunt to re-extirpate the re-introduced animals.
There are reports of mountain lions in the Catskills and Adirondacks. There are conspiracy theories that the New York DEC has actually released a few. There has also been cougar scat and hair samples found in the northeast spanning from upstate New York to Maine. The general consensus seems to be that these are released captive pets and not a small surviving population nor a controlled re-introduced one (see related post here).
The re-introduction of predators with the purpose of repressing populations of other animals may be entirely adverse to the introducer’s intentions. It may lead to the presentation of disease to indigenous animals without immunities or the transmission of disease from indigenous animals to the introduced ones. It may also show the way to the re-extirpation of a species. Instead, maybe we should pave over the shoulders of highways that offer countless miles of seasonal buffet to deer. Maybe we should reforest the cleared abandoned land. Maybe we should just keep allowing humans to hunt while we await the natural migration of the predator from our Canadian neighbors where the animal has made a natural comeback; one without re-introduction.
In conclusion the utopian idea of a re-introduced natural predator seems good in theory but one must keep in mind that the reason these animals do not live here any longer is because of the highways, the homes and the congestion. This is why they will be transplanted from areas (like North Dakota or Canada) where these elements are not as prevalent. Although this may mean the animal may never naturally return (as long as humans so densely occupy the region anyway), it is important to realize that the reason for this is because they would not likely proliferate. The locality can no longer naturally accommodate the species. In fact, it may lead to a death sentence of the re-introduced animals as well as have as little, if not less, effect on the deer population as hunting has proven to have.
“A Beast in the Garden: by David Barron” http://www.beastinthegarden.com/
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