Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Putting The Cat Back in The Catskills

By Matthew D'AmbrosioPublished April 30, 2018

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Mountain lions were extirpated from New York State in the late 1800s. Reintroducing America's largest cat to the mountains of Upstate New York will have a positive effect on the state economy, ecology, and even public safety.

No one is completely sure why the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley dubbed the mountain chain to their west the "Catskills," but one popular idea is that they named it after the catamounts which prowled its peaks.  Catamount used to be the Northeast's word for mountain lions, but the moniker fell out of use when the cat was extirpated from the region in the late 1800s.  However, reintroducing mountain lions would decrease deer populations and restore much needed wilderness to the Empire State.

Reintroduced mountain lions would help humans cull deer.  Everyone in New York knows the deer population has become out of control and needs to be reduced.  Statewide, they cause $60 million worth of crop damage and 70,000 vehicle collisions annually.  1 in 154 New York drivers will hit deer at some point in their lives.  That number is obviously much higher for Upstaters as those living in the boroughs of New York City are much less likely to encounter highway bound cervids.  Cougars could reduce these accidents by 22% and prevent "21,400 human injuries, 155 fatalities, and $2.3 billion in avoided costs within 30 years".  Lastly, if they do not hit your car or your wallet, deer could hurt your health because of the massive amounts of Lyme disease they cause across the state.

Many cite Yellowstone's success with wolves when discussing the benefits of predator reintroduction to control nuisance deer, but New York is not Yellowstone...at least yet.  There is potential to turn Upstate into the Yellowstone of the East, and we can savor the economic and social benefits of having the greatest wilderness in the region.  It is completely feasible as Adirondack State Park is six times the size of Yellowstone National Park.  With our unique combination of native black bears, moose, lynxes, snowy owls, and a resurgent bald eagle population, adding mountain lions would make Adirondack State Park a true ecotourism hotspot.

Of course, there will trepidations, and many will balk at the idea of willfully unleashing a fine tuned predator upon our backyards.  Fortunately, there is nothing to worry about.  One study determined that the flagship state park could host 150 - 350 cougars within its borders.  This same study found that human and road densities in the Adirondacks are very similar to those in the South Dakota Black Hills and South Florida where mountain lions coexist peacefully with people. 

In fact, a poll conducted on Colorado residents revealed 68% had positive feelings towards their mountain lions, and 79% would like to see the cougar population increase.  And out-of-touch, Denver metropolitans were not skewing the poll in favor of nature they never interact with either.  Having a negative opinion of the cats was correlated with spending little time outdoors.  Additionally, mountain lions ranked seventh out of eight options when Coloradans were asked which hazards they were concerned about when doing wilderness activities.
These are the people who live alongside mountain lions currently, but what about the prospective New Yorkers who would see the cats become their neighbors?  When asked, 70% of Adirondacks residents (and 85% of visitors) would not object to cougars recolonizing New York on their own.  About half of those numbers said they would be fine with cougars being intentionally released.  If Upstaters were to accept the idea of living with lions that migrate in, I am confident a proper PR campaign can convince them to welcome cats who are transplanted by the Department of Environmental Conservation. 

Even still, we should reassure the skeptical.  Only three Americans have met their demise at the paws of a cougar since the turn of the millennium, with zero deaths in the past ten years.  Mountain lions are shy, flighty animals that want nothing to do with humans.  And while it is true that they are adaptable and successful living around urban and suburban areas, black bears and coyotes (both of whom call Upstate home) are much more fearless of human communities and have caused significantly more grief for people than cougars.  In fact, invasive coyotes have begun to dominate Upstate New York ecology as a result of cougar and wolf extirpation, and reintroducing mountain lions would help stop further encroachment of this much more fearless and dangerous animal.

Whether it is for economic, safety, pro-wildlife, or even anti-wildlife motives, every New Yorker would benefit from bringing mountain lions back home.