Does the eastern US have room for cougars? 

(Nicky Pe/Pexels)

By Peggy Clark

Klandagi in the East

Before European colonization, the land that is today the eastern United States was home to a richer biodiversity of plants and wildlife. The idea of a former pristine, untouched wilderness is a myth, though—the Native Americans passed down land stewardship practices and knowledge across generations. Many tribes revered the cougar—also known as puma, panther, or mountain lion—as a teacher. The Cherokee name for the cougar, Klandagi, meaning lord of the forest, reflects their special reverence for the animal. According to the Cherokee creation myth, the cougar and owl are blessed with vision in darkness because only they were able to stay awake during the seven days it took the Great Spirit to create the world.  

It was the relentless persecution of predators by the European colonizers, along with habitat loss and the overhunting of deer, their primary prey, that led to the cougar’s destruction in the east. By 1900 the last cougars had been killed off east of the Mississippi River, with the sole exception of an isolated, endangered population in southern Florida. In many ways, the U.S. government’s treatment of Indigenous people parallels its treatment of its native carnivores. 

Indeed, some tribes like the Tongva from what is today Los Angeles, California, directly see the story of the sacred cougar reflected in the history and deliberate displacement of their people. “He mirrors us. He was born on this land, like those who came before him,” read a tribute to the famous cougar P-22, who lived in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park for a decade.

Today cougar populations in North America exist in just 16 U.S. states (some of which only have small, tenuous populations), three Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan) and Mexico. It’s important to note though that the eastern cougar is not a separate, extinct animal—it never existed as a genetically distinct species or even subspecies. All cougars in North America, including the Florida panther and extirpated eastern populations, are classified as Puma concolor couguar. Thus, if cougars from the west recolonized the east, they would be the same kind of animal that historically roamed there. Today, the eastern half of the country is much more densely populated than the western half, where cougars currently still exist. So, is there enough wild space to return cougars to the east?

The Eastern Habitat Study
In January 2023 scientists with Panthera, an organization dedicated to preserving wild cats worldwide, published a study that determined the most suitable areas of habitat for cougars in the east. The researchers looked for the largest areas of potential cougar habitat that could support a healthy population even in isolation. This chosen threshold area was a minimum of 6,000 square kilometers of good habitat, with no interstate highways dividing it. With the strategic placement of wildlife crossings over roadways, the space of connected habitat could grow even larger. For comparison, Yosemite National Park is roughly 3,000 square kilometers in size, while Yellowstone is just under 9,000 square kilometers. Both western parks have cougar populations.

What Makes Ideal Cougar Habitat?
The Panthera study analyzed several different factors to the determine the best potential areas for cougar restoration in the eastern U.S. They considered the following limitations:

  • Habitat area: the minimum size to sustain long-term genetic diversity was estimated at 6,000 square kilometers or greater.  
  • Land cover: cougars prefer to avoid open habitat. This ruled out agricultural fields and grasslands. 
  • Forest cover: cougars need structured cover for survival and to stalk and ambush prey. The study selected areas that had 53 percent or more forest cover.
  • Livestock density: cougar survival is higher in areas with low livestock density because conflict with humans due to predation on livestock can be more easily avoided. Therefore, areas heavily concentrated on domestic cattle or sheep production were excluded. The study looked for areas of land that had a livestock density of less than 14.5 animals per square kilometer. 
  • Housing density: cougars need areas with low housing density and development. The chosen threshold was a housing density less than 68 units per square kilometer. This factor excluded major cities and densely populated suburbs.
  • Human development proximity: cougars avoid habitat immediately adjacent to people. Therefore, space within 600 meters of a house or human structure was excluded from the overall square mileage. 
  • Deer: the cougar’s main prey. White-tailed deer are very abundant throughout most of the east.  
  • Winter snow: cougars follow their prey for survival. Deer and elk avoid areas of very deep snow, so the average winter snow could not be too deep. The threshold was an average winter snow depth of 50 centimeters or less.
  • Highways: major interstate highways fragment cougar habitat and create major obstacles. Without wildlife overpasses or underpasses, cougars can be struck and killed trying to cross busy roads. This excluded land within 170 meters of interstates or major arterial highways.  
  • Sociocultural values: human social tolerance for cougars is a major factor. The study looked at residents’ attitudes towards wildlife, with the ideal attitude being one of mutualism instead of domination. Where mutualistic attitudes prevail, the people living in the area prioritize coexistence with wildlife and are more likely to value large carnivores like cougars. Colorado State University’s wildlife values survey has published results for every state. Out of the 17 potential habitat areas studied, the patches in Vermont and New Hampshire scored the highest on mutualism, and the Ouachita Mountains area of Arkansas scored the lowest.   

Using these restrictions, the study found 17 suitable patches of potential cougar habitat 6,000 square kilometers or larger. Each of these areas could, in isolation, support a genetically healthy, self-sustaining cougar population. 13 of these were 10,000 square kilometers or larger. The smallest area was in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, and the largest was in the Wisconsin Upper Peninsula. The area in Vermont and New Hampshire marked by a red circle was also suitable and adjacent to several other habitat regions —it was simply divided by highways into patches smaller than 6,000 kilometers.  Perhaps this would be a good place to build a wildlife crossing.  

Most of these habitat areas were adjacent or nearby other patches, separated by interstates or cities. Three were isolated islands of ideal potential cougar habitat – the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas (#1), Ozark Plateau of Missouri (#9), and the Great Smoky South of western North Carolina (#10).

Putting it all together, the three most suitable regions for cougars in the East would be:

1. The New England states, New York and northern Pennsylvania (seven habitat areas, 116,374 square kilometers total)

2. The Great Lakes region (four habitat areas, 99,293 square kilometers total)

3. The Appalachian Mountains, including most of West Virginia and parts of eastern Kentucky, western Maryland, and southwestern Virginia (three habitat areas, 62,725 square kilometers total)

Why Reintroduce Cougars?
Some may ask why there is a need to restore a top carnivore back to its former range. Reintroducing any apex predator is a highly controversial and contentious issue. Many people are afraid of cougars and see them as a looming, potential threat to public safety or their pets. The actual occurrence of cougar attacks is quite rare (only one fatality every five years on average), but these incidents tend to garner the most media attention, which can negatively alter people’s perception of cougars.  Regardless, a look at the science reveals the east would indeed benefit from having cougars back. In fact, the absence of cougars in the east has had negative consequences for not just the ecosystem, but human health and safety concerns as well. Beyond their aesthetic or symbolic value, several reasons to support the restoration of cougars include: 

  • First, cougars reduce the rate of deer-vehicle collisions on roadways. A University of Washington study published in 2016 estimated that the restoration of cougars in the east would reduce the current rate of deer collisions by 22 percent within 30 years. Each year, that estimate amounts to preventing five human deaths, 680 injuries, and avoiding costs of $50 million in damage. On an individual level, a single eastern cougar could prevent at least eight road collisions between deer and vehicles and save $40,000 within six years. The paper summarizes that “cougars would indirectly save far more people from death (five per year) and injury (680 per year) by reducing [deer-vehicle collisions] than they would likely directly kill (<1 per year) or injure.” Note that West Virginia, a state with one of the highest percentages of potential cougar habitat, also has the highest rate of deer-vehicle collisions in the nation.  
  • Cougars help prevent over-browsing of forests by selectively trimming the deer population. The east’s three remaining top predators—black bears, bobcats, and coyotes —will all sometimes prey on deer (usually fawns) but are wide-ranging generalists in their diet. In isolated areas like islands in the east, bobcat reintroduction efforts have had positive effects on the health of both the local deer and plant communities. The larger cougar, which is more specialized in hunting deer, could produce similar results on a wide scale.  
  • Cougars may be a factor at controlling the spread of diseases in deer such as Chronic Wasting Disease.  A Colorado study found that cougars selectively removed infected mule deer—including in the hard-to-detect early stages of the fatal disease. Cougars can feed on Chronic Wasting Disease-infected deer without getting sick themselves and absorb the prions rather than shedding them.  
  • Cougars can reduce the prevalence of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease. This disease is spread by deer ticks, which become infected after feeding on mice. In addition to their role as natural predators of deer, cougars also keep the numbers of coyotes in check, thereby increasing the numbers of small carnivores like foxes that are primarily mouse predators.   
  • Cougars are ecosystem engineers. Their presence has a cascading effect benefiting a wide variety of species that scavenge their kills, from birds to beetles.    

Can They Return on Their Own?
There have been a number of confirmed cougar sightings in some midwestern states. However, the chance of cougars recolonizing the east on their own faces several logistical challenges. To confirm a breeding population exists in an area, we would also need to find a female cougar with cubs or displaying signs of nursing. Long distance dispersers are mostly subadult males between one and a half and three years of age. Females usually stay close by their mother’s ranges and form matrilines in a population.  

Each individual cougar venturing east faces the threat of vehicle collisions, intolerance, a lack of connectivity and state policies. Many of these individuals originate from the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

In 2011 one male cougar, documented in the book Heart of a Lion, traveled from the Black Hills all the way to Connecticut but was unfortunately struck and killed by a vehicle attempting to cross a road. In 2016 a rare female disperser from the Black Hills was confirmed in central Tennessee, though she has not been seen in the area recently and her fate remains unknown. Only a few lucky individuals make it this far. Wildlife corridors, education, and policy reform must occur if these travelers are to survive.