Mountain lions in upstate New York? Maybe eventually, but not yet, experts say


Those of us who enjoy getting off of Long Island and enjoying the beautiful nature upstate are going to have to wait a little bit longer before we can potentially see a wild cougar.

Cougars, also known as pumas, panthers, mountain lions, and catamounts, are — or, were — native to New York. They were once native to the entire continent, but deforestation and hunting reduced their numbers significantly. In the Northeast especially, bounties were put on them due to the threat they posed to livestock.

Because of all this, cougars have likely been absent from New York since the 19th century. The last verified sighting of an eastern cougar was 1938 in Maine. Now cougars only exist in breeding numbers out west, with a small population surviving in Florida.

A recent column in the New York Times suggested that the cougar could be on the comeback in the East, although the original population is gone. This column, written by scientist Mark Elbroch, presented evidence of suitable habitat for cougars, including in New York’s Adirondack mountain range. It also pointed to the fact that there are breeding populations currently east of the animal’s range, particularly in the Midwest.

But while the evidence is there that cougars could return to New York, other experts say it won’t be anytime soon.

“Cougars are expanding their range into midwestern states,” Jeremy Hurst, a wildlife biologist at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said. “Presumably, cougar populations could continue expanding eastward such that an established population would exist in New York at some unknown point in the future. However, population range expansion is influenced by mortality levels and public tolerance on the leading edge of that range, and there are a lot of roads —vehicle strike risk — and a lot of humans between New York and existing cougar populations, more so than between western states and the midwestern states where cougars are now seen more regularly. So natural range expansion to New York is possible over the long term, but improbable in the near term.”

Though many locals upstate report sightings every year, these are likely cases of mistaken identity. The Department of Conservation does acknowledge the occasional presence of cougars in the state of New York, but these are not evidence for breeding populations.

“Most reports are mistaken identity of wild bobcats, fisher, coyote, or domestic cats or dogs,” Hurst added. “We did confirm the presence of a mountain lion in the Lake George area in 2011. It originated in the Dakotas and was picked up on trail cameras in Michigan, seen by dozens of motorists in western Connecticut, and was struck and killed in Milford, Connecticut.”

That cougar that passed through Lake George all the way from the Dakotas was a male, likely searching for territory and mates.

Unfortunately for him, any female cougars out here had been gone for decades before he met his end on a Connecticut highway.

Other cougars have been confirmed, both in New York and surrounding states. But these were probably fellow western transients or escaped pets from the underground exotic animal trade that is prevalent in America.

Even if these western cats colonize their eastern cousins’ former range, Long Island likely doesn’t have to worry about them lurking in its wilderness.

“Given the current landscape of development, road networks, and limited food supply, it is highly unlikely that a cougar population could reach rural Long Island,” Hurst concluded.