By Sue Pike
November 05, 2009 2:00 AM
Two stories grabbed my attention this past week. A study recently published in the Journal of Mammology found that hungry black bears in Yosemite National Park preferred to pry open minivans to other types of vehicles in their quest for food.
The second story was from a friend who had heard of recent cougar sightings in Exeter, N.H., and Kittery, Maine. Since I moved to York from the west coast in the late 1990s I have heard of cougar sightings from reputable sources; blurry photos of cougar tracks, hair-raising stories of close encounters; glimpses in the field. The problem with all these accounts is there is no hard, indisputable evidence of these large cats. The position of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is that these are probably bobcat sightings or the occasional escaped pet.
Cougars disappeared from Maine and New Hampshire in the 1800s because of over hunting, habitat loss and a decrease in prey populations. Studies indicate that cougars require large tracts of undeveloped land, that the kind of fragmented landscape we now have in New England will not support viable populations.
However, as hunting and trapping laws have become more stringent, bobcats and coyote populations are on the rise, bear are easing into neighborhoods, pillaging bird feeders and getting into garbage. These large predators are adapting to human presence, so why can't cougars?
A number of factors will encourage these large mammals to move in next door. Food availability is a big lure. Those black bears in Yosemite pull apart minivans to snack on the contents because they have learned that they are an easily exploited food source. The black bears in our neck of the woods understand the food value of a hapless garbage can by the driveway or a bird feeder. Fishers and coyotes know that cats make good snacks, especially pampered, slow-moving house cats.
Another factor is loss of habitat. As we develop more and more of what is left of the wilderness in New England these animals lose their homes and must move somewhere or die. The suburbs might start to look good if there is nowhere else to go.
Most biologists agree that we are in the middle of the sixth extinction; a loss of species that rivals the past great extinctions — the demise of the dinosaurs being the most famous.
Back in 1993 Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that we are losing something on the order of 30,000 species a year. That's three per hour!
Given that we are causing the premature extinction of countless species, cougar sightings, bears in our back yards and coyote packs roaming our neighborhoods should be considered a good thing. The return of these predators indicates some level of health in our local ecosystems.
We have an interesting time ahead as we decide how we will deal with these new neighbors. Can we co-exist with cougars and packs of coyotes and bears, or are they just too scary and inconvenient?
Sue Pike of York has worked as a researcher and a teacher in biology, marine biology and environmental science for years. She teaches at York County Community College and St. Thomas Aquinas High School. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org