Louisiana Cougars: With Or Without Our Help?

The study and debate continues but many believe that parts of the Florida panther population may need relocation into other areas of the South so that all of the "eggs" aren't in one basket. Is this a good decision? What is the best path to take? We have been asking ourselves these and other essential questions: where should we reintroduce them, how should we do it, should relocation even take place at all? In the meantime, the cougars continue to be cougars and apparently aren't waiting any longer for us to take action.

While we debate and plan the best methods for restoring the cougar to some of its former range the cougar has been hard at work also, pressing eastward into areas officially devoid of cougars for a century. In 2002, Louisiana was able to confirm its first cougar resident in many a decade. The sighting by Michael Carloss and his wife was backed up by DNA evidence from scat located at Lake Fausse Point State Park.

Fast-forward to the spring of 2007: pictures from a trail camera originally intended to observe deer captured multiple instances of a cougar inhabitant. These photos remain unconfirmed due to the desire of the owner to keep the location anonymous. He fears losing his deer hunting lease to higher bidders and does not want sightseers to over-run his hunting grounds. I wouldn't normally put much faith in such evidence but it just so happens I know members of the deer lease. So, although I am not allowed to prove it to everyone else, I know the source of the photos and know them to be legitimate.

This Fall, two separate cougar photographs surfaced that were taken by trail cameras 100 miles apart in Louisiana. Maria Davidson of the LDWF examined these pictures and visited the spots where they were taken, suspecting that the cougar pictured might be the same one traveling both areas. After the investigation, the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries confirmed the evidence as legitimate unaltered proof of a cougar in Louisiana.

I know of other cougars in the state, but I just don't have permission to come forward with the evidence for various reasons. Either way the trend is clear, cougars are pressing into old stomping grounds without our help.

The only question that remains is: will they be able to establish themselves as a permanent viable breeding population? That problematic uncertainty has been studied intensively by those looking for potential relocation areas for the Florida Panther. The results of those investigations can leave you with mixed feelings. Cougars need habitat, and lots of it, without human congestion in an area guaranteed to remain that way in the future. That is something we all understand, and those places do exist in a number of states including Louisiana, but there is another factor to consider and that is public perception.

Cougars were wiped out of the East during a time when the available habitat wasn't much of an issue. The public merely didn't want cougars around so the cougars were systematically killed off. Unfortunately, public perception is a mixed bag right now. I would like to think it would be an easy victory for the cougar. However, in my talks with people across the South the fear factor has reared its ugly head and has the potential to deal a death blow to any cougar re-establishments that occur or would occur with or without our help.

Currently in Louisiana the cougar gets a free pass - at least from a legal standpoint. The killing of a cougar in Louisiana comes with some hefty fines and potential jail time. Fines of $100,000 and jail time of up to one year should be a significant deterrent to most, but if you don't think you will be caught then the stiff penalty might not be as potent as one might think.

For the time being, the cougar has the law on its side in Louisiana in addition to another big ace up its sleeve for potential long term viability. That ace comes in the form of the Louisiana Black Bear. The state has long had a program designed to bring the black bear back from near extinction in the state. This program not only protects the black bear but also its habitat.

Louisiana had two distinct populations of Black Bears at the time the plan was implemented. One population inhabits the coast of St. Mary Parish and the other resides further north in the Tensas area of the Northeastern part of the state. The state's Black Bear Plan has a goal of connecting these two areas with travel corridors. The vast Atchafalaya basin serves as part of the corridor and provides a huge sanctuary for wildlife with very little highway intrusion.

The work done to protect the Black Bear's habitat in Louisiana for future generations is exactly what the cougar needs as well. The Black Bear program could easily be renamed the Black Bear and Cougar Protection Program because even though the original program's goal was designed to assist the bear population, it would provide the cougar with exactly the same thing that it is providing the Louisiana Black Bear... great habitat and lots of it.

Since Louisiana has a thriving deer population and a skyrocketing hog population, large expanses of habitat available for future generations, and legal protections for the animals from hunters and livestock owners, is it just a matter of time before Louisiana has its own viable breeding population of cougars? Would the cougars re-establish in the state anyway with or without our help? A lot of evidence is there to suggest that it is just a matter of time before Louisiana is faced with serious questions concerning how to deal with an emerging cougar population. With their expertise and long involvement with cougars in the East, the ECF would be a logical partner in this decision-making.

by Mike Guerin
Original published in the Eastern Cougar Foundation Newsletter.

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