There are too many deer on the East Coast. They destroy gardens and are vectors for disease. They’re also the most dangerous animals in America, thanks to their tendency to collide with vehicles. Nationwide, the chance that you might hit a deer while driving this year is 1 in 170.
The solution to this problem is simple: less deer. But the way there is tricky. Humans have tried to reduce the deer population and deer vehicle collisions a few different ways: contraceptives, relocation, fencing, culling. These options have either been very expensive or ineffective.
One quirky but largely untested idea to reduce deer populations? Bring back mountain lions (aka cougars, pumas, panthers, or catamounts) to the East.
It would be a natural means of limiting their population. Deer evolved with predators. Mountain lions used to roam throughout the country, including the vast majority of the East, and their tendency to eat deer kept deer populations in check. Sharing our modern-day concerns of safety for humans and livestock, and competition for harvesting game (like deer), humans removed all the cougars from those states by the early 1900s.
Getting rid of all the cougars was a significant, if shortsighted, undertaking: It took from the beginning of European colonization until the 1930s to remove all the cougars on the East Coast. In the process, we threw the ecosystem out of balance and ended up creating a much greater threat to human lives than the one we had removed.
Without a control, deer populations subsequently exploded. Deer-vehicle collisions have grown and continue to rise. But if we bring mountain lions back, we bring the food chain somewhat back into balance, providing a limit to the deer population that doesn’t currently exist.
It seems like mountain lion reintroduction would be financially worthwhile, too: A recent peer-reviewed research study conducted by Sophie Gilbert, an assistant professor at the University of Idaho, and a team of researchers demonstrated that Easterners could realize $2.1 billion over 30 years in total societal cost savings by reintroducing mountain lions to the East Coast. These benefits include the prevention of 21,400 injuries and 155 fatalities.
So who should take on the task of reintroducing the animals? Perhaps a group that stands to benefit from bringing mountain lions back to the East Coast: major auto insurers like Geico, State Farm, and Allstate.
When people hit deer with their cars, the average claim size is $3,995. If 1 in 170 drivers hit a deer each year, that’s roughly 1.24 million collisions a year and almost a $5 billion drag on the industry.
The study conservatively estimated that full-scale mountain lion reintroduction eventually could reduce collisions by 22 percent in Eastern states, or 28,000 collisions a year. That would save the industry $111 million annually.
What about the investment needed to make achieve those savings? It’s possible to estimate the costs from the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in the mid-’90s. Looking at cost estimations from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for that project, John Laundre, vice president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, which advocates for returning cougars to the East, thinks that a release of five female cougars and one male cougar would cost approximately $500,000, with ongoing costs of $100,000. If six releases are performed (two each in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Southeast), that’s an initial cost of $3 million with ongoing costs of $600,000. Even if those best guesses are off by an order of magnitude, there is still high potential for a large return on the investment.
South Dakota offers a test case example of how effective this solution might be. Cougars have been slowly migrating East: They only recolonized the Black Hills in western South Dakota in 2005. When Gilbert and her team looked at mountain lion recolonization in the western part of South Dakota, they found that from 2005–2012, deer-vehicle collisions fell by 9 percent, resulting in $1.1 million in annual societal benefits for the citizens of western South Dakota. (A 9 percent reduction in seven years is roughly on par with the 22 percent reduction, which researchers think will take 30 years from recolonization.) By avoiding an estimated 158 deer vehicle collisions annually, auto insurers are already saving roughly $630,000 a year in payouts in the Black Hills.
There is no doubt that a mountain lion reintroduction would be politically complex and challenging. Cougars are a top-level predator. Livestock owners in the East will have concerns about mountain lions eating their animals. Realistically, cougar depredation happens rarely: In 2010, only 1 of out every 200 cattle that died in the U.S. that year was killed by a mountain lion. However, that will be small comfort to livestock owners who lose their animals, so insurers could establish a fund to compensate livestock owners for their losses and to help them lessen the already small chance of attacks before they happen.
People are also likely to be afraid of mountain lions, but the numbers show that this fear is outsized. From 1890 to 2008, 153 confirmed cougar attacks on humans and 21 human fatalities occurred in the United States and Canada combined. That translates to 1.3 attacks and 0.2 fatalities per year, or one every five years. For comparison, over 29,000 people are injured and another 200 die in collisions with deer each year. Reducing those numbers by 22 percent a year could save over 6,500 injuries and 40 lives annually.
Still, people would likely complain. When a car hit a juvenile male mountain lion in Connecticut a few years ago, it sparked controversy, but no one was harmed. So introduction efforts would have to be accompanied by community outreach, and would be best done in partnership with wildlife conservation and rural development organizations. They would have to assert the benefit of the program—which would include environmental benefits in addition to financial ones.
Nonetheless, it is asking a lot for the auto industry to take on this potentially unpopular program. But they might have to. The long term economic situation for the industry is a troubling one: Self-driving cars will be safer than actual humans driving cars, which will result in people paying less for insurance since insurance will be less valuable with fewer accidents on the roadways. Self-driving technology is being developed faster than expected and threatens to wipe out 40 percent of premium payments to auto insurers in the future.
To maintain profitability, auto insurers are going to need to find new investments cut costs to match the future revenue reductions in the industry.
Bringing back mountain lions to the East Coast might be just the thing.