On Wednesday we heard that the eastern cougar, a cousin of the western mountain lion, was officially declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although not shocking news – an eastern cougar has not been seen since 1938 – it is still sad to hear, especially when humans are to blame. The early European settlers killed cougars to protect themselves and their livestock, and also nearly wiped out their white-tailed deer prey. Such actions and attitudes crippled the wild cat population and doomed it to eventual extinction.
So what happens when we lose a top-level predator like this? What does it mean now that the cougar is gone?
Well, usually it means that their prey animals, such as deer, begin multiplying out of control and wreak havoc on the landscape (and we do have a white-tailed deer problem). It also means other predators can take advantage of the empty niche.
In the 1970s, the eastern cougar was declared an endangered species. That is also the same time the coyote population exploded in the northeast. Coyotes had been moving east as humans moved west, providing corridors for them to travel. Loss of forests to agriculture also opened up more areas for coyotes to live, as farm fields came to resemble their former western native prairies. Gone were the wolves and cougars, and so coyotes could now assume their place.
Today, you can find coyotes everywhere, even here in Defenders’ backyard in D.C. Although widespread, they remain secretive and try to avoid humans. Just like the former cougars, coyotes feed on deer, and may help to keep these populations in check. They also eat rats – bonus!
With the resurgence of a new predator in our midst, we need to take measures to ensure a peaceful coexistence. Coyotes have successfully adapted to our altered landscape, and now it’s our turn to adapt to life with them.