Cores, Cougars & Corridors

Bob DeGroot has a dream. He dreams of a day when eastern cougars can travel unimpeded by development from the mountains of Pennsylvania into the Maryland hill country and across the spine of Appalachia into Virginia and West Virginia — all without leaving the protection of forest.

DeGroot, president of the Maryland Alliance for Greenway Improvement and Conservation (MAGIC), shares this dream with 75 conservationists who attended a conference in Bethesda, Md. in early April. The meeting was held to draw attention to a budding project to link protected wildlands across the central and southern Appalachians.

“What we’re really looking at is how to connect the (forested) areas in West Virginia, or the areas of Virginia, up through Maryland and into the protected areas in Pennsylvania,” DeGroot said. “This is a work in progress. How successful we are at it depends on whether there is enough money and political will to make it happen.”

One of the groups that shares DeGroot’s vision for an interconnected wildlands network is The Wildlands Project, a Tucson-based organization that is mapping ideas for conservation reserves across the country and working to make them a reality on the ground. The group’s eastern office in Virginia is drafting a proposal to protect wildlands throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including the central Appalachian region that is the Bay’s headwaters.

The Wildlands Project foresees the creation of large, strictly protected core reserves surrounded by buffer areas that allow human uses compatible with conservation.
These cores would be linked by corridors wide enough to allow the free exchange of genes between plant and animal populations within the cores. Designed properly, the corridors could also serve as greenways for human recreation, allowing hiking paths or canoe trails.

“This is not something we’re going to see come to fruition in five years,” said David Bynum, the Project’s eastern coordinator. “We’re going to see parts of it come to fruition soon, and other parts in five years, other parts in 10 years and maybe the cougar in 50 to 100 years, but we have to think long-term like that.”

Like DeGroot’s dream, the Project’s reserve designs are based on the science of conservation biology and the theory of island biogeography. Both disciplines are
based on a simple premise: small, isolated chunks of habitats — the result of fragmenting the natural landscape with roads and development — support only a fraction of the plant and animal species that larger, contiguous areas do.

“In unbroken forests, the ability (of wildlife) to move to new sites actually helps the dispersal of genetic material,” said Ed Perry, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist.
“Whereas in fragmented forests, wildlife can become stranded in open, unsuitable habitat.” He cited wood turtles as an example of a species that is suffering in
Pennsylvania from fragmentation. “Many of the wood turtle populations are reproductively dead, with only old, non-breeding adults walking around.”

Why should the public worry about the loss of wood turtles, or marbled salamanders, or cerulean warblers (all species suffering from fragmented habitat)? Perry said ecosystems are so complex that scientists are just beginning to understand how they work. “When a species becomes extirpated from an area, we may be eliminating a keystone species that has a ripple effect throughout an entire ecosystem. Ironically, it may be the inconsequential species that turn out to be the most important.”

The first animals to go when a landscape is fragmented are the top-line predators such as cougar, bear, and wolves. These animals generally have large home ranges and need the protection of spacious cores of habitat to retain viable populations and remain safe from humans. Dave Foreman, chairman of the The Wildlands Project, told the conference that roads and other motorized access usually spell doom for large carnivores.

“We’ve learned from the reintroduction of Mexican wolves in Arizona that because the first wolves were released in an area with many dirt roads, within months of their release, five of the wolves were shot alongside dirt roads and two were run over,” Foreman said. “Wolves in the Southwest don’t need wilderness ecologically, but they need wilderness from a security standpoint, to be safe from harassment and poaching.”

When large carnivores disappear from an area, small and mid-sized predators such as foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums and domestic house cats explode in numbers. They, in turn, prey too heavily on songbirds, amphibians, reptiles, and even pollinators, forcing their numbers to dwindle. A dearth of predators also causes herbivores like deer to overbrowse many plant species.

“When we eliminate the top predators from an ecosystem, the whole ecosystem begins to unravel,” Foreman said. He cited a study of sea otters in California that found when the otters were trapped out, sea urchins (which otters eat) overpopulated and overgrazed the kelp beds that support myriad coastal species. When the otters returned, the balance was restored and the kelp beds returned.

By creating a network of wildlands large enough to support top-level carnivores, Foreman said, we can create an umbrella of protection for most species that exist within a given ecosystem. “Large core areas like wilderness areas, national parks and other areas with limited motorized access allow for more species, maintain natural disturbance regimes, ensure population viability, and they enhance wildness for all of us,” he said.

In the highly fragmented East, however, stitching the land back together is particularly challenging. A recent study by ecologist Chris Haney of the Nature Conservancy and several colleagues found that most protected wildlands within the southern Appalachians are too small to maintain basic ecological structure over the long term when subjected to natural disturbances such as fire or windstorms.

The study found only the largest reserves, such as the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park, were large enough to sustain the mix of old-growth and early succession habitat that would be expected in an unmanipulated forest ecosystem. The researchers also found that “single units of the wilderness system are apparently not sufficiently large enough to serve as effective repatriation sites for large species of extirpated carnivores,” as evidenced by the failure of the red wolf reintroduction in the Smokies.

But there is hope for the East, Foreman said. The Wilderness Society has identified an additional 797,243 acres of public land in the southern Appalachians that is roadless or otherwise could serve to boost the amount of protected acreage in the region. “I think there are a lot of the southern Appalachians where there are probably already some cougars and I think there are big enough landscapes in the East — and certainly places we can restore — that we can do it,” he said.

Cougars are definitely prowling the central and southern Appalachians, according to environmental writer Chris Boligiano, who also serves as vice-president of the Eastern Cougar Foundation. Bolgiano, whose book Mountain Lion traces the natural history of the American panther, told the conference that a cougar was even reported stalking around nearby Tyson’s Corner.

She showed a slide of a cougar kitten that was hit and killed by a car on a Kentucky highway in 1997, one of more than a dozen cases of confirmed evidence of cougars in the East the foundation has compiled. “It’s highly unlikely this guy was all alone in the wild,” she said. Yet so far the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service considers all cougars outside of Florida to be escaped pets, and therefore not worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act. Bolgiano said it shouldn’t matter where they came from.

“Our position is if that a cougar can survive in the wild and reproduce, filling the ecological niche of cougars, that’s all that should matter,” she said. A 1999 study of cougar genetics by Dr. Melanie Culver backs up that view. Her analysis of DNA from the 32 subspecies of cougar known to science found that Florida panthers, Central American catamounts, and western American cougars are genetically identical. Thus, any eastern escapees that were bred north of Panama should be treated the same as the federally protected Florida panther.

“We are blessed to have this core of habitat in which cougars could live,” Bolgiano said, referring to the band of public land stretching from Virginia to Alabama. “The wilderness areas tend to be in the most remote areas of the southern Appalachians. Many have old-growth forests within them. Certainly this is a place in which cougars could live today.”

DeGroot acknowledged that in northwest Maryland, much of the remaining forest land that is desirable for protected cores and corridors is in private hands. “If we’re going to look at rewilding, we’re going to have to look at purchasing private lands and that’s going to take a lot of money,” he said.

Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening has asked the General Assembly to support a five-year, $145 million program to save the state’s most ecologically significant lands, part of an ambitious plan to protect 2 million acres of greenspace by buying up land from willing sellers. But that money would only go so far in meeting the state’s goals and some legislators are balking at the pricetag.

Foreman said there are opportunities to work with farmers and other large landowners, by purchasing conservation easements from them or by offering them financial incentives to protect wetlands and other wildlife habitat. Bynum added that the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund offers money to states for purchasing lands for recreation and wildlife protection. But the Southeast lags behind the Northeast in lobbying for such funds.

Unlike northwest Maryland, the southern Appalachian states of Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas are blessed with more than 6 million acres of public land. Dave Muhly of the Sierra Club’s Southern Appalachian Ecoregion (SAHE) told the conference that the national forests of the region “represent our best chance to protect the wildlife, its habitat, and the clean waters that sustain them.”

Despite claims by the U.S. Forest Service that they have changed their ways, Muhly said that timber harvest on public lands continues to degrade important natural areas that should be the cornerstones of a wildlands reserve network. He cited a recent Forest Service disclosure that the agency lost $126 million operating its timber sale program in 1998. “Annually, this program goes into the red on a regular basis,” he said.

State forests also need protecting, according to Dr. Durland Shumway of Frostburg State University, especially old-growth forests. Shumway and his students have been studying a tract in Pennsylvania’s Savage River State Forest that contains perhaps 700 acres of uncut forest and another 300 acres of lightly cut forest. Some of the oaks there have been aged at 400 years.

Shumway has proposed to Maryland’s secretary of natural resources that the state establish an ecological research center at Savage River, putting the roughly 1,000 acres of old growth into a trust. Graduate and undergraduate students from Frostburg State could continue studying the old growth ecosystem there, making it a living laboratory.

“The fact is you can’t make a 400-year-old tree,” he said. “These old-growth forests represent a national imperative: either we preserve them or we don’t, but we can’t make them. We need somebody that is capable of taking care of them.” And it’s not just trees at stake, Shumway said. Savage River is home to several rare plant and mammal species, including climbing fumitory, black-fruited mountain rice, and the Allegheny woodrat.

By comparing the current forest makeup at Savage River with 1774 survey records of witness trees in the area, Shumway was able to get a rough picture of how the forest has changed since colonial times. He believes that fire suppression has allowed red maple and black birch to increase in dominance over oaks, which rely on periodic fire to reduce competition. By examining tree rings, Shumway found that cool ground fires burned through the oak forest at Savage River about every eight years until man started extinguishing them.

Shumway said the old growth at Savage River is precisely the kind of place that should be at the heart of a conservation reserve plan like the one proposed by MAGIC and the Wildlands Project. “We absolutely have to have core areas that are protected, to protect rare species and communities and to act as source populations for adjacent areas that have lost species,” he said.

At the end of the conference, participants were asked to comment on what they’d heard during the day and suggest ways for the vision articulated by speakers to move forward. One man pointed out that most of the areas identified for potential protection in Pennsylvania are ridgetop forests. “One of the most endangered, if not the most endangered, forest type in the Northeast is the riparian (bottomland) forest,” he said. “Even in town, preserving that riparian buffer, that’s valuable.” His comment brought rousing applause from the audience.

Steve Krichbaum, an activist from Virginia, said he strongly supports the efforts of those who are planning networks of interlinked wildlands in the Appalachians. But he urged conference participants not just to dream, but also to work to protect what’s there now. “You can’t just have a grand vision and hope that someone else is going to protect it in the meantime,” he said. “You’re going to have to get out there and fight with your last breath for these places!”

For more information about the Wildlands Project, visit MAGIC’s website can be located at For more information about the
Chesapeake Bay Wildlands Network Design, which is currently being drafted, contact David Bynum at 919/477-1928.


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