Hunting Forward, Looking Back

Whew! With last week’s summer-like 80-degree weather behind us, let the pheasant season begin.

Not that I’ve been pounding the coverts this week compared to days of old. No, not even close. But I did finally get out, did meet Frontier Regional School baseball coach Chris “Skinny” Williams for our first afternoon engagement, did give my dear, 12-year-old gundog Lily a test run that didn’t go well, and will indeed soon start kicking the hunting season into high gear with cooling temps brought by winter harbinger winds from the north.

First, Skinny, just a kid at 25, eager and willing to learn a new game. He watched Lily try to negotiate difficult, dense cover she used to cut through and bound over with ease and assessed her condition as “hurting,” which was right on the money. And he had never seen her  heyday, so had nothing with which to compare that day’s performance. This vestibular disease that seems to have progressed and leaves her balance off-kilter displays symptoms similar to human vertigo. In an open, shin-high hayfield of clover, timothy and rye, it would take a discerning eye to detect her occasional wobble because her tail still wags with a happy rhythm to match her joyful, light-footed gait. But put her in the dense, thorny tangles Skinny watched her struggle through Monday afternoon, and it’s clear something ain’t right. That, I’ll just have to live with, letting the cards fall where they may.

Minus the many personal sentimental reasons related to hunting over Lily in her prime as a covert-busting dynamo, my problems are at the max minimal with 5-year-old Chubby in his prime and in many ways, a superior bird dog to his mother; he’s bigger, faster, longer-legged and a tad more biddable, an animal that aims to please for the simple payback of love and affection. Yes, he has all of Lily’s finest attributes, and then some. So it’s not like I’m in a bad place in the gundog department.

That said, it’s tough to witness Lily’s demise, and even more difficult to leave her behind when Chub-Chub and I ramble off for hunts that she so loves and was bred for. I have no choice. Displaying her typical indomitable will during Monday’s hour-long hunt, she battled obvious balance issues and it took a lot out of her, tiring her more than I can ever remember and lingering overnight and well into the next morning. She didn’t even want to leave her aromatic, cedar-shavings-filled, box-stall barrel at 8 a.m. I may give her another go here and there in cover I think she can handle, but for all intents and purposes, it’s clear to me that Lily’s days as a gundog are finished. Happens to the best of them.

When I know the four-legged lady I affectionately call Lily-butt is suffering, or not eating, or incapable of normal geriatric-dog activity, I’ll do the right and honorable thing I wish I could have done when my sons were struggling with hospital infections during their final, tortuous days, waiting for their last death-bed breaths, connected to this and that outrageously expensive hospital contraption, none of which could save them. Talk about helpless, I’ve seen helpless and hopeless in vivid, living, poignant color that no man should be forced to endure. And they call it dying with dignity, which I can’t say I understood. Some may call that I witnessed dignity. Not me. Spare me, please.

Anyway, on a happier note, can you imagine a more humorous, potentially raucous hunting arrangement than the one that’s fallen into my lap this fall? Here I am an old man, 63, limping but still plugging, showing the ropes to a kid nicknamed Skinny — nicknamed because he was a plump young boy — hunting over a springer spaniel named Chubby because he displayed that body type for his first six months on this planet. Today, there is nothing Chubby about Skinny or my Chub-Chub, who may not be in absolute, tip-top hunting shape just yet, but soon will be an athletic, acrobatic, 50-pound bundle of sprinting, slicing, bounding, hopping, flushing and retrieving fury — an absolute joy to watch, and such a showy indicator.

My primary challenge this fall will be teaching Skinny Williams the nuances of bird hunting, kinda like he instills in his ballplayers the fine points of hitting and baserunning and pitching to hitters’ weaknesses to set them up for failure; of thinking middle when mired in  a batting slump fueled by overconfidence and over aggressiveness, or when confronted with a do-or-die at-bat that demands discipline, patience and total focus.

I myself was about Skinny’s age when I started to really hone my bird-hunting and dog-handling skills. I started pheasant hunting by walking two- and three-abreast through tick cover, stopping often to listen for birds fleeing from us through crunchy cover. Sometimes they’d fly as we closed in and get shot. Other times we’d hunt them down and shoot them on the ground, an absolute no-no when hunting behind a gundog. Along the way, after several annoying misses, you learn how to lead that straightaway shot that inexperienced hunters so often miss low, or how to let a bird flying right at you pass overhead before shooting. Like hitting a baseball, that particular shot takes discipline and experience. You simply see it flushing directly at you, spin around 180 degrees, mount, and wait for the bird to reappear going away. That’s when you touch off a shot, watch the bird drop and the dog retrieve it from a tagled mess. Oftentimes the retrieve is blind, on the other side of a tall, stream-side alder row, and interesting to watch the dog’s incredible instincts take over.

Skinny got a little taste Monday, just a nibble. It won’t long before he’s sitting down at the banquet table making a pig of himself. Promise. Let the good times roll.

Eventually, he’ll likely get married, settle down, buy his own gundog and go off on his own, teaching his kids and their friends the tricks of an enjoyable game that remains alive long after team sports. Me, I’ve been there, done that many times, and now I’m doing it again and looking forward to it. Great Spirit willing, this won’t be my last rodeo. Remember, I have two grandsons, 10 and 7, who may want to learn to wing-shoot and handle gundogs.

Then again, perhaps the boys will take the path of my own late sons, one of them their dad, both of whom as boys loved to tag along and watch the dogs’ flush-and-retrieve routine. In the end, neither of my boys had the stomach for killing. I had no problem with that, was totally accepting and understanding.

It may be difficult to comprehend but, to me, the worst part of hunting is the taking of life. The best part is healthy, challenging outdoor activity, figuring out the game, playing it well and sharing with others what you’ve learned and perfected.

Claw Scars Stir Speculation

With bowhunters sitting in their treestands these days, one of them, Steven Curtis of East Colrain, pulled into my driveway noontime Saturday. Meeting for the first time, he wanted  to share color trail-camera photos of a claw-scarred deer other hunters in adjacent stands may soon become acquainted with …  pondering  the possibilities.

This doe, probably in the 100-pound range, displays deep, unmistakable, thought-provoking, healed claw marks gouged across both  ribcages. Obviously, she somehow escaped a large, clawed predator, which judging from the available photographic evidence, pounced on her back and tried unsuccessfully to take her down for  venison dinner.

A bear? Bobcat? Um, dare we suggest … a cougar? Hmmmm? Who knows? The jury’s out. But in Curtis’ experienced-woodsman assessment, and mine, the scars holler wildcat, and most likely cougar. Yes, quite possibly a wayward young male disperser far away from his distant western birthplace, wandering far and wide eastward for females and his own new territory. Such a cat would be immature, inexperienced and not quite a man yet. Thus, perhaps, the doe’s miraculous escape.

Think of the possible scenarios of attack by such an animal, which would either jump down from a low, sturdy tree limb or off a shelf of mountain ledge overlooking a tight pass. Then again, yes, I suppose it could have launched the attack from ambush cover at ground level, though that seems less likely. Regardless, there are many sites that meet all three descriptions in our vast forested uplands, and none can be ruled out just yet without expert testimony.

Now, mind you that I have been told in the past by credentialed wildlife experts — respected sources such as former MassWildlife Deer Project Leaders Jim McDonough, John McDonald and Steve Williams — that bobcats and northern lynx will indeed take down a young deer by pouncing on its neck from above, simultaneously breaking the spinal column and opening the jugular with its teeth in one lethal fell swoop resulting in instant paralysis and rapid death. But a bear attacking in such a fashion from above? I have never heard of that.

I put out a feeler to an expert who has not yet responded. So I’ll wait for a response and I’ll keep you posted.

My guess? Well, dare I say another cougar disperser passing through my neighborhood? Yes. That’s the way I’m leaning. No, can’t be sure, but the scars along both of that Houdini  doe’s ribcages scream mountain lion.

What an amazing outpouring of sympathy and amateur diagnoses from dog-owning readers concerned about my 12-year-old springer spaniel gundog, Lily, who’s getting old and showing visible signs of age.

Last week in this space, I described my pet’s second troubling spell characterized by unsteadiness on her feet and inability to jump up onto my truck tailgate, which has since her juvenile days been no problem.

Given many thoughtful responses to last week’s column, I have to believe Lily’s dealing with vestibular disease, a vertigo-like affliction related to the inner ear that’s basically untreatable, according to several dog owners who have done what they could to cure it and ended up just living with it.

Several correspondents said vets sometimes refer to it as “old-dog syndrome,” which I can live with because Lily is indeed an old dog, not to mention one tough bitch and alder-swamp buster. Her registered name is Old Tavern Farm’s Tiger Lily, and she has lived up to it every day of her life.

One correspondent from up the hill in Heath emailed me with his diagnosis and then, a day later pulled into my driveway with his 14-year-old bitch, Lois, lying contently on his black Silverado’s front seat. The disease more advanced than Lily’s, Lois displayed somewhat cloudy eyes and subtle side-to-side head movement. I witnessed this same head motion for a day or two after Lily’s first seizure-like event in the spring, but it faded fast and has not returned.

Though still not certain whether Lily will be able to perform in the field this year, I am not quite ready to write her off just yet. Last week, a few days after her latest setback, she maneuvered through a dense wild-rosebush border and continued south through dense, thorny wetland brush to flush a pair of woodcock, one after another. So let’s just say the instinct and desire lives on. I have an idea she’ll flush and return some pheasants in the coming weeks.

That said, here it is Day 5 of the pheasant season, and I have yet to slip into my Filson bibs and pound my favorite coverts. Still early, friends who’ve been out report flushes are few and far between, which doesn’t surprise me early. Pheasant hunting always improves after birds have been stocked for several weeks, compared to the Week 1 birds quickly wiped out by the opening-day onslaught.

Trust me, I will get out this week. I’ve been busy thus far, plus it’s been way too hot for my liking this week. So, let the birds multiply and the temperatures drop and we’ll be up to our old tricks, me and Chubby and Cooker or Killer or even new man Skinny Williams, who texted colleague Big Boiczyk Sunday evening about setting up a Saturday hunt. Though I hate hunting Saturdays and bucking the crowds, I just may take Skinny out, even if he is a school teacher. I seldom got along with schoolteachers, though there were rewarding exceptions. Skinny’s saving grace is that he’s Frontier’s baseball coach and I’m an old hardball man from way back. Plus, he’s a childhood friend of my boy, Johnny Pepyne, the infamous Frontier schoolboy entrepreneur. So, yes, this pairing of Smikky and me may just bear succulent fruit.

We’ll see. Well worth a try. I dare him to demand I raise my hand before asking questions. All that would do is stir up old issues.

Mortality’s Knocking

The northern view through my tall west-parlor back windows now displays a line of brilliant, yellow-orange brookside maples slowly shedding leaves in autumn’s variable sunny breezes, before the overnight cold quickly turns them brown and crunchy underfoot. Sitting and watching the leaves drop like feathers to the ground Wednesday morning immediately pulled my thoughts to Lily, a dear 12-year-old springer spaniel gundog and companion who’s fading.

Lily’s had another setback, and now it is clear that she will not see her 13th birthday on Aptil 28. No spring chicken but still rollicking with a joyful gait and tail-wag, and showing not a hint of appetite loss, Lily is, after all, pushing 90 in dog’s age. So, well, let’s just say mortality is indeed knocking on the door and appears to be creeping in with bird season here. Woodcock season opened last week and closes Nov. 19. Pheasant season opens Saturday and ends on Nov. 26.

So, will Lily hunt this year? A week ago I would have said yes, definitely, and she may well surprise me yet and rise to the occasion in the coming six weeks. But, as it stands right now, I’m not counting on ever again seeing her retrieve to me, head high and proud, a plump cock pheasant between her jaws. She’s endured  another troubling spell, one that has for now thrown her off-kilter, her motor skills affected, albeit slightly.

I witnessed her first seizure-like event just days after her 12th birthday on my daily morning trip out back to feed her and 5-year-old son Chubby inside the mouth of a backyard cook shed built to mimic a blacksmith’s forge. I had backed the truck alongside the barn, settling the back tires into a lawn depression to reduce the height the dogs needed to clear onto the tailgate, and could hear Lily barking enthusiastically for breakfast and our robust walk to follow. I dropped the tailgate and opened the wire porta-kennel doors before walking back into the cook shed, opening the covered plastic container atop a wooden table and dumping a scoop of dried food into both rust-brown Wagner skillets, — Lily’s a No. 7, Chub-Chub’s No. 8.

Upon freeing the dogs  by opening the kennel door, both of them sprinted eagerly to their breakfast plates as they always do.  Chubby dove right in but, curiously, Lily did not. Instead, she stopped a foot short and started acting in a peculiar manner, refusing to go the final inches to her food. It was as though a rattlesnake was coiled in front of the skillet, or perhaps something else that she didn’t want to tangle with. She started panting, smacking her lips, drooling and appeared to briefly lose her balance, never falling but stumbling to one side as she circled away toward a nearby stonewall. I thought maybe she had gotten into poison or been bitten by something on her  previous night’s ramble across the brook. Or maybe she had swallowed a hornet or spider, judging from the way it appeared she was feeling something uncomfortable in her mouth or throat.

As she stood next to the stonewall, still acting strange, she again stumbled a bit, looked like she was struggling with something in her mouth or throat, and circled to the left, around a twin bass tree to the back corner of the barn, where she stood straight, looked down and started smacking her lips and moving her head slowly from side to side. I called her and she came trotting my way, passing me to her food, where she stuck her nose down into the skillet and proceeded to eat at her normal pace. When done, as usual, she ran to the truck, showing a slight wobble in her gait, one that would take a keen eye to decipher, but she would not try to jump up onto the truck’s bed. I reached down to assist her and she staggered into her porta-kennel before quickly regaining her balance, standing and spinning around to face me.

“Hmmmmm?” I thought, perplexed. “I’ll have to see how she does on the walk,” which I must say surprised me. No. Check that. It stunned me.

After securing her in my arms and placing her on the ground in the hayfield we walk, she ran off as she always runs, displaying a light, happy gait and joyous tail, but still a little stagger here and there, which seemed to improve as we  progressed. By the end of our mile or more walk, she showed less sign of balance issues, though I did have to lift her up onto the tailgate to get her into her porta-kennel.

Once home, I kenneled the dogs and, because it was Saturday, my veterinary options  few, I went inside and immediately phoned the animal hospital in South Deerfield to describe what I had just witnessed to someone I surmised could diagnose the dog’s problem. No such luck. Maybe my description was confusing. I doubt it.

“Well,” I said. “I’ll just keep an eye on her and see what develops,” saving myself a bundle.

And monitor her I did that day and for many to follow, the athletic sporting animal showing steady progress to the point that, within two or three weeks, she was actually back jumping up into the truck and back down without assistance. I suspected a TIA or mini-stroke but, not being a doctor, couldn’t be sure. She could also have gotten into something. I continued observing her daily, and she continued to improve to the point of coming all the way back to her pre-seizure or TIA state. Honestly, all summer she was running up and down steep hills, through rivers, swimming, and getting in and out of the truck unassisted on most occasions. A miracle? Maybe, but I wasn’t quite convinced. After all, she is 12, old for a springer, the longest any of mine have endured.

And now this new development after a carefree summer of daily romps, river walks and ridge-top rambles. This latest harbinger of the end occurred noontime Monday following  a good, brisk mile walk. Visibly hesitant to attempt a jump up onto the truck, I was alert to her body language and gave her a little boost. She cleared the tailgate, staggered sideways and stumbled into the crate face first before standing up unsteadily and turning to face out. Hmmmm? What was that all about?

Since then, there’s been steady, slow progress but she’s not right, even though her appetite and happy tail-wag is normal, her light, happy gait altered slightly at times. I must admit I have intentionally kept her away from the steep edge of an escarpment we pass along our daily walk. I’m not eager to retrieve a pet that has tumbled down a high, treacherous, eroded sandy bank. It would be a project.

Who knows? Ole Lily-butt may just bounce back once again. Doc Schmitt himself called her a “tough bitch” with a fond twinkle in his eye after a birthing process gone bad. Not much has changed in the five years since, which were complicated by a bad infection along her ribcage from a beaver-pond puncture wound that required surgical intervention. She’s still plenty tough.

Although this recent event was not as serious of the one in April, I’m now confident she’s dealing with geriatric TIA’s, and that such an event will likely eventually take her to the happy hunting ground. If the final act is merciful, I’ll find her laying comfortably expired some morning on her soft, aromatic bed. Better still, maybe she’ll recover sufficiently to again accompany me in the field to run, jump, splash through black mud and flush birds to a flaming finale of sudden death by cardiac arrest from overstimulation and excitement.

We should all be so lucky. Few are.

Skinny Challenge

The challenge arrived last week in the form of a text message to the colleague I call Big Boiczyk, a young man who faces me daily from across our joined, rectangular Recorder desks.

“Hey, you’ll get a kick out of this one,” he chuckled. “It’s Skinny Williams. He’s says he’s ready to go goose hunting with the master. He still wants you to take him hunting.”

“Goose hunting? Tell him I stopped shooting geese after the last one I ate 40 years ago. I hunt pheasants these days, pretty-much exclusively now that woodcock and grouse have diminished so. If he wants to go pheasant hunting with me, great. I’ll take him. I could use a set of young legs in the field with me.”

A short pause ensued before the arrival of another text.

“He wants to know when the season opens.”

“Well, it depends. Woodcock opens next week. Pheasant season opens a little more than week later on Oct. 15. Tell him I avoid opening day. Too many hunters out on that first Saturday. Does he have a license? I don’t hunt with outlaws.”

Another short pause, a little fiddling with his cell phone, and Big Boiczyk comes right back at me.

“Yeah, he’s says he can do you one better than that. He has a license to carry.”

“Big deal,” I responded. “So do I. What’s he want? A shootout?”

So there you have it. A potential new hunting buddy with young eyes, fresh legs and plenty of personality. Perfect. My kind a fella.

Not a total surprise, the Frontier Regional School baseball coach had first broached the idea of hunting with me last spring while on the phone reporting a score. At the time, I didn’t know if the young man was serious. Now a follow-up. How about that? Superb! I’m always looking for companionship. I’ll show him the ropes, and rattle his cage every chance I get.

I must believe there’s good reason for him to reach out to me. After all, he’s coaching in my hometown of South Deerfield, where, even though I’ve lived elsewhere for the last 20 years, wild tales of my youth  endure. I can’t say I’m proud or ashamed of everything they talk and laugh about. But I’m sure he’s heard plenty. Remember, the Frontier athletic director is my baby brother Martin. So, take it to the bank: Skinny’s been egged on plenty, and heartily encouraged to take a little whirl through the alder swamp with the old man whose reputation precedes him in that neck of the woods.

It reminds me of a conversation I enjoyed a couple of years ago with the two Scott sisters one fine afternoon standing in their front-yard promontory point in Whately. Looking across the Mill River Watershed and Great Swamp to as fine a profile of the giant Sugarloaf beaver available, the younger sister, Heather, grinned and told me her late dad, “used to tell us stories about you.”

“Well,” I responded with a wry, maybe even slightly timid grin, “although I prefer to tell folks who don’t know me  that I’m a victim of small-town gossip, my friends know that if you multiply what you hear by five, you’re probably in the ballpark.”

“I like that,” she laughed out loud.

Oh well, so now this  new character named Chris “Skinny” Williams is jumping into the fray with me and my mother-son springer-spaniel gundogs: Lily, 12 a seasoned veteran with maybe one productive year left, and Chubby, a 5-year-old dynamo entering his prime. My buddy Cooker — a professional trainer, breeder and field-trialer — says with gleaming admiration that he’s never seen Chub-Chub tire in the field. He attributes the 52-pound animal’s endurance to what is known in his game as “a big pump,” which in layman’s terms means heart. No one who’s witnessed Chub-Chub scour a covert would disagree, and I see it daily, with or without a gun in hand. Nose-driven, Chub-Chub is a fine-tuned, high-performance machine with a total aim to please and cooperate. In Cooker’s world, they call him biddable, the opposite of unbidden, I suppose. I’m comfy  either way.

Having a rich baseball background and plenty of diamond yarns, I’m glad Skinny’s a hardball man. There happen to be many transferable skills between baseball and wing-shooting, many similarities between hitting a pitch and a flying bird. Both tasks require a plan, a check list, patience, precision and execution. Plus, never underestimate the value of experience and hunting familiar coverts where the shooter knows the flight tendencies and preferred  escape routes.

I have hunted with many trusted pals over the years — fellas like Fast Eddie, Big Stash, Ole Smitty, Young Count, Doc Van Boeckel, Tommie Valiton, Cooker and Killer — all of them highly capable and compatible, with an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, even without communication. Three of them are no longer with us, one by way of a tragic, youthful car accident, another by hateful disease, the other by sudden cardiac arrest in the Maine woods he so loved. They’re all gone but not forgotten, with many stories spontaneously there for the taking.

Who knows? Maybe Skinny the ballplayer will surprise me with his readiness for the wing-shooting challenge. Perhaps he’s proud, has visited the skeet and trap ranges to sharpen his skills and will step right up to the plate ready to perform. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about skeet and trap shooters it is that shooting-club or Sporting-Clays proficiency does not always translate into excellence in the field, where thorny tangles, tall tree lines, knee-deep mud, ditches, and high, dense alder screens can change the success rate dramatically. Have you even seen major-league superstars look like rank amateurs striking out on a breaking ball in the dirt or fouling back a meatball? Well, it happens to wing-shooters in the field, too, usually after they get leg-weary, stumble, get momentarily distracted and/or lose their concentration. Or a shooter can simply mess up the execution sequence with an awkward mount resulting from pressure to get off a quick shot before the flying bird disappears behind a dense, bushy screen.

I still remember where I learned that wing shots can indeed be made through dense cover. I was grouse and woodcock hunting in the Whately highlands with late Boston Herald outdoor scribe Dixie White in an old orchard tangled throughout with wild grape vines. Handling my springer, Pepper, not 10 yards from Dixie — who was carrying a gorgeous little European 20-guage side-by-side that likely cost more than the Jeep Cherokee I drove up Henhawk Trail — I heard a timberdoodle flush, mounted quickly and saw just a flash behind a tall, wide, grape-tangled apple tree. I didn’t shoot but Dixie did and, too my astonishment, Pepper promptly returned with a lean, limp male woodcock in his mouth.

“How’d you sneak one through that wall?” I asked Dixie, who was the same vintage as my father. “Myself, I wouldn’t even bother pulling the trigger on a shot like that.”

“Remember, all it takes is a pellet or two to take down woodcock and grouse,” he said with a told-you-so grin. “You’d be surprised how many pellets can get through a tangle like that.”

Lesson learned. Yes, seeing is believing. And since that day, I have seen many impossible targets come down dead, including larger pheasants that are tougher to bring down on such shots.

Hopefully, I won’t disappoint Skinny, given all the tall tales he’s likely heard. Maybe I’ll get the chance to mentor this spirited young man, who, by the way, I have never laid eyes on. My usual style is to go the low-pressure route, starting by quietly watching, evaluating and assessing before finally imparting friendly advice aimed at easily correctable flaws and improved success. Then again, maybe young Skinny has a thing or two to teach me about wing-shooting.

That, he’ll have to prove — kinda like Dixie’s incredible shot through the gnarly, grape-vine-entangled wild apple tree.

Spatz Responds On Cougars

The autumnal equinox is here, landscapes and backyard maples are sporting that familiar early-fall tinge and, yep, cougar feedback from high priests is alive and well.

It didn’t take long for Cougar Rewildling Foundation (CRF) President Chris Spatz to chime in on last week’s column titled “Cougar Rewildling Could Happen Here.” Actually, there is probably no one on earth more eager for  such a development. That’s his foundation’s mission: to bring cougars back east. But he knows the he and other cougar advocates are really up against it politically. It is thus not difficult to surmise that he’s pessimistic at best about cougars returning to the Northeast, based on what he knows about government policy where cougar populations are alive, well and itching to migrate out to new domains.

The major problem is that state and federal wildlife and law-enforcement officials, always swayed by public outcry, opinion and safety concerns, are pulling strenuously in the opposite direction. While some of these wildlife experts are indeed sympathetic to the noble beasts’ plight to repopulate places from which they were long ago extirpated, most public officials know that the return of any large carnivores capable of inflicting bodily harm or even death upon human beings are not generally welcome, even on the fringes of rural neighborhoods. Thus, in a place like South Dakota’s picturesque Black Hills, where some 30 years ago cougars returned after, give or take, a 100-year absence, state officials would rather be safe than sorry, so to speak. So, in recent years they have instituted what cougar defenders consider draconian harvest quotas aimed at keeping big cats buried deep in the wilderness and away from even rural folks, never mind suburbs and urban areas.

This dilemma is spelled out in minute detail by science and nature writer William Stolzenburg, whose intriguing new book “Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America” follows the media-darling cougar that traveled more than 2000 miles from his Black Hills birthplace to Milford, Conn, before meeting its maker on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in the wee hours of June 11, 2011. Although this juvenile male “disperser” may not have been the first cougar to make such a cross-country journey in search of a female and new territory of its own, it is the first and only documented case, one that may solve the mystery of at least some of the hundreds of sightings reported in the Northeast over the past 30 years. The fact is that there’s really no way of knowing for sure. On the other hand, there’s no way of saying it’s impossible, either. Now that South Dakota and other western cats are being tranquilized and collared for research studies, others may well show us the way to rewildling and hint at the possibility that such migrations have been randomly and rarely occurring for many years.

Spatz wouldn’t likely argue against that hypothesis, given what he now knows about male dispersers as a result of the western collaring and telemetry tracking initiative. Young males do indeed wander greater distances than initially believed to escape the ire of dominant males in established territory, and to find females. The problem is that the same type of research shows females reluctant to travel nearly as far.
“No wild female (with a fresh case in Tennessee still pending) or kittens have been documented east of the Missouri River,” wrote Spatz last week. “The closest breeding colony remains Nebraska. Young males can disperse thousands of miles ’til the cows come home. But if females don’t make into the Midwest, let alone farther east, there can be no rewildling.”

Fair enough. But having read, enjoyed and comprehended Stolzenburg’s book on a fascinating subject of longtime personal interest and study, the author seems to suggest that re-establishing cougars to their old eastern haunts would eventually happen by natural migration and range expansion with friendly wildlife-management objectives. Which is to say that if the wildlife-management goal was to allow western big cats to multiply at sufficient rates to expedite range expansion of males and females, sooner or later they’d repopulate available wilderness areas through the Ozark Mountains as well as Great Lakes country, not to mention farther east in the Adirondack, Green, White and Appalachians mountains all the way down the East Coast to the Blue Ridge and Great Smokies.

Although Spatz doesn’t expect such a liberal cougar-management policy to be enacted in the Black Hills anytime soon, he didn’t argue with the inevitable-rewildling hypothesis if such the goal was to push populations east.

“Yes, it would happen eventually,” he wrote, “but it’s 700 miles from the central Nebraska colony to the next best habitat identified by (CRF colleague) John Laundre as well as the Cougar Network in the Ozarks and northern Minnesota.
“Every male that’s made that trek for the last 25 years has either been killed or disappeared. Females tend to stay within 100 miles of their natal range. Prairie range expansion has crept only 150 miles in 25 years. That means it would take at least 50 years to get halfway to the Ozarks under good conditions. The question is: how will females raise kittens to dispersal age while stepping stone across this hostile landscape where no male has survived in 25 years?
“So much must change in puma management across 2,000 miles to get them back to New England.”


Then again, never underestimate the power of Mother Nature, and don’t just dismiss out of hand every local cougar sighting you hear of. Obviously, after that 2011 Connecticut road kill, it can happen, probably will again and has before.


Cougar Rewilding Could Happen Here

Like yesterday, I clearly remember the day it was brought to my attention: June 11, 2011. The breakfast alert came by email from old friend and valued source John McDonald, the former MassWildlife Deer Project Leader by then working as a wildlife biologist out of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFW) Hadley office.

Yes, it was true. Finally, after scores of reported New England sightings publicized right here over more than three decades, a real, big, live mountain lion had met its maker after midnight on a Milford, Conn., highway. And, oh yes, the question of its origin was a hot topic indeed. Call it bad timing. Just three months earlier, USFW had changed eastern cougar status from endangered to extinct. In other words, the king of North American wildcats, once native to the East, was no longer considered rare. According to the USFW, this cat no longer existed. The announcement was celebrated by many who said, “Told you so,” and, well, then again, criticized by those who  totally disagreed. So, go figure: three months later, a 140-pound male that measured nearly eight feet from nose to tip of tail, with no visible signs that it had ever been held in captivity, turned up dead on Connecticut’s Gold Coast, in a Long Island Sound town in the evening shadow of New York City.

What was interesting about my informant for this news flash within hours of the road-kill was that McDonald had warned me as a friend and longtime source to stop publicizing cougar sightings, which are not accepted as evidence by authorities but rather as misidentified house cats, golden retrievers, bobcats, deer, chipmunks and you name it. Well, honestly, chipmunks should be stricken from that list. But you get he point.

Although I can’t remember the exact wording of his morning email, I can paraphrase it as a cautious compliment somewhere along the lines of: Congratulations on your perseverance regarding this subject. A dead adult cougar showed up last night on a Milford, Conn., highway. We’re not sure where it came from but are investigating escaped-pet or animal-farm escapee as possibilities.

Hmmmmm? Anything but a real, live, wild cougar somehow finding its way to New England, where it once roamed freely as a valuable carnivore in the Northeastern ecosystem. Well, no such luck, fellas. By simply eyeballing the dead creature, it was clear from the start that it was a wild beast that had all of its claws and wore not a sign of tattoos, ear clips, computer chips or other identification markers placed on it by humans for identification. No, this young male was no pet.

Later, after gathering DNA samples and cross referencing them with the ever-growing federal database, it was discovered to be the same cat that had earlier shown up and left collectible DNA evidence through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario and Lake George, N.Y., before arriving in posh Greewich, Conn., and dying as road kill on the Wilbur Cross Parkway at 12:30 a.m. The DNA samples taken from the carcass, likely in the presence of U.S. Special Agent Thomas Ricardi, namesake son of former the state Environmental Police captain and current wildlife-rehabilitation expert who lives in Conway, matched the cat to five other samples along its 15-point, 19-month, 2,000-plus-mile trek through hostile territory all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Now, thanks to William Stolzenburg’s new book, “Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America,” most of this cat’s so-called record journey is blended into a documented tale of cougar rewilding in the Black Hills based on scientific analysis of  radio-collared cougars tracked wandering to find new territories after expulsion from dominant cats’ domains where they’re born. If no one interferes with this natural migration, one would expect juvenile males in the 2-year-old class to be on the move out of dominant males’ territory looking for female mates and into new territory to establish as their own. Thus, over time, one would expect their range to eventually expand eastward all the way to the coast.

Called “dipersers,” no one was sure how far these wayward cats would travel seeking a female, but it was clear early on that 200- and 300-mile treks were common. That radius was later increased to 700 miles when a young Black Hills male found its way to Oklahoma, where it was killed by a speeding sagebrush freight train. Then these dispersers started showing up in Iowa and Nebraska and Arkansas and Kansas and Michigan and Illinois and Wisconsin and Kentucky, where sooner or later they would either be killed accidentally on a road or rail or die at the hands of law enforcement officials wired for public safety. More than one pathetic disperser met its end cowering under a porch, backyard trailer or you name it. Defenders say such a response is unwarranted, that these cats should be tranquilized, moved and saved. Law enforcement would rather dispatch these potentially problematic cats to eliminate any possibility of human fatality or injury resulting from attack.

Given what they now know after years of radio-collar tracking, in a perfect world the juvenile males would break new trails in all directions and, sooner or later, females living in saturated western territory would follow, eventually building new reproductive cougar populations nationwide and into Canada and Mexico and perhaps beyond. Although it appeared that this process was well underway five and more years ago because of an ever-increasing Black Hills gene pool, that migration process has been derailed by aggressive recent overhunting in South Dakota, where, over the objections of cougar-rewildling advocates and progressive, deep-ecology state and local wildlife and conservation advocates, the state has set generous bag limits leaning in he direction of keeping numbers down in the name of public safety, not to mention vociferous complaints and hysteria from ranchers, sheep herders and residential cougar-phobes.

What this big cat that died in Connecticut proves is that there are no geographical or manmade obstacles capable of keeping similar dispersers from repopulating the East over the long haul. And who’s to say his was the first, that others before him were real and not hallucinations or misidentification? These cats are good swimmers and can learn to negotiate superhighways and  secondary back roads alike. Fact is, there is no such thing as an insurmountable mountain range capable of barring their door in any direction.

The list of sources relied upon by the author Stolzenburg — a prolific Reno, Nev., science and nature writer — is chock full of experts used by this space over the years. We’re talking about scholarly Chris Spatz and Helen McGinnis of the Easten Cougar Foundation that morphed into today’s Cougar Rewildling Foundation, and rabble-rousers like Bill Betty and John Lutz, with both of whom I still maintain an open line of communication despite my reluctance to jump full bore into their government-conspiracy camp. I listen with interest to all of them and others as well and form my own opinions about the credibility of their tales and the potential cougar comeback in the Northeast, which I do not consider impossible.

I was surprised, given who he did talk to, that Stolzenburg didn’t discover USFW researcher Virginia Fifield, who was sent to the Pioneer Valley to investigate cougar sightings and reports from 1981 through 1985. Headquartered in Hadley before the new, state-of-the-art USFW office was built, she investigated hundreds of reports and recorded one solitary “confirmed” track found in the mud left behind by a Goshen puddle. Similar studies by other folks of Fifield’s ilk are cited in Stolzenburg’s fine book, and Fifield’s finding would have only enhanced his argument.

As for me, well, Stolzenburg’s book provided one more voice on a fascinating subject that has captured my curiosity ever since several workers taking a break in the mid-1970s during construction of the new Whately Glen Reservoir reported a sighting in broad daylight. It was not a phantom sighting by a single man but rather several witnesses reporting the same mountain lion sighting, and word spread like wildfire through South Deerfield. Since then, there have been many more credible Pioneer Valley sightings reported here and elsewhere, and there will likely be many more. Stolzenburg adds to the discussion and makes it blatantly clear that cougar rewildling in the east is far from impossible if allowed to happen. Then again, who’s to say it won’t happen despite overzealous wildlife management policy in cougar niches like the Black Hills? If so, it’ll take more time than if their goal was to increase the population and expand the range back to its colonial borders.

A Good Read About Coyotes

With an active, dynamic and ever-changing reading list usually piled atop the square, snake-legged candlestand next to my La-Z-Boy reading chair, it’s unlikely I’ll jump right on a book recommended by friends or readers, no matter how much I respect their opinion. Not impossible, but definitely a long shot given the big picture.

Well, it just so happens that this recommendation was an exception — one that caught me with an opening as I neared the end of Barbara Olins Alpert’s “The Creative Ice Age Brain: Cave Art in the Light of Neuroscience,” which triggers so many intriguing, local, deep-history questions. So I went on a cyber search, found the book at a reasonable  price, ordered it and jumped right in when finished with Alpert’s fascinating study of cave art dating nearly 40,000 years back. Hard to imagine, huh?

Nonetheless, the new read immediately grabbed me and quickly bore succulent fruit dealing with  a subject of old personal fascination: that is, coyotes. Not only that, but it even helped me through the first Labor Day Weekend in memory without local peaches to sweeten my morning cereal. Oh, how I eagerly await the ripening of our annual salubrious peaches, which never arrived this year due to Mother Nature’s February/March sleight of hand, the old witch.

The reading recommendation came from Deerfield Academy English teacher Joel Thomas-Adams, and it couldn’t have come at a better, more appropriate time. I had for weeks been listening to a good old friend devastated by the loss of a dear cat and, though not certain exactly what happened to it, he named coyotes as his No. 1 suspect, vowing to shoot any with nerve enough to show themselves along the lawn’s edge of his wooded estate.

“Can you tell me what good they do?” he’s asked rhetorically and angrily many times in grief over the loss of his beloved pet, a male cat who liked the freedom to roam and hunt, then one day didn’t return. By now it’s a foregone conclusion that Brady will not return, a sad reality that repeats itself every other second in the harsh world of nature.

When I try to defend coyotes as predators playing a distinct role in the ecosystem by thinning out mice and moles and squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits and woodchucks and other small animals that can wreak havoc when unchecked, he ain’t buying it for one second. No sir. Not a chance. He’s furious at coyotes. Well, coyotes and suspect No. 2: fisher cats, like coyotes, known hunters of domestic cats.

“We did just fine without coyotes when I was a kid,” he snaps, “and in my opinion we don’t need them now.”

It’s not a novel sentiment among hunters, farmers and hilltown residents who own pets, hen houses and maybe lambs or calves. When you think of it, there may not be a more misunderstood animal in North America than coyotes. It may not be deserved. Evolving from the western prairies, these wild canids have in the past 50 years become an eastern phenomenon as well. Perhaps people who have learned to hate these highly intelligent, adaptable wild canids ought to read Dan Flores’ book “Coyote America,” which takes coyotes from their honored past in ancient Native American creation and trickster lore, to their villainous status during the American taming of the Wild West well into the 20th century, to continued persecution as a new “coywolf” hybrid that’s moved into urban and suburban settings all the way to the Atlantic coast with mischievous, opportunistic, grinning Wile E. Coyote aplomb.

The story Flores spins is sad indeed, some of it grotesquely inhumane — a story of horrifying, heartless cruelty by federal and state poisoning initiatives, not to mention trapping, snaring and destruction of litters in their secure dens. It was a no-holds-barred attempt to extirpate a North American animal that was here on this continent long before the people charged to remove it, ancestors of European colonists who came here beginning in the 16th century.

But guess what? The more these institutional murderers intensified their concerted efforts to wipe out these wily little critters, the faster the population grew and moved and interbred with red wolves and expanded their homeland coast to coast. And the populations continue to grow nationwide today, with resident metropolitan populations in our biggest cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, not to mention border-to-border small-town America, plus Central America and Canada. So, take it to the bank: folks from Central America to Canada must be prepared to learn to coexist with coyotes, because they have evolved into an animal that’s here to stay. They were here first, have learned to live on the fringes for millennia and will continue to do so forevermore.

As a Franklin County resident for most of my 63 years on earth, I have witnessed the evolution of what we now call eastern coyotes, first called wild dogs, then coydogs, then brush wolves, and now coywolves. Call them what you may, but they are here for the long haul carrying varying degrees of western coyote, red wolf and domestic dog DNA. Some are more wolf than coyote, others more coyote than wolf, but they’ve all learned to survive quite well, thank you, in the Northeastern mountains, forests and wetlands. The good news is that they’ll keep the varmint populations down. The bad news? Well, you may lose a pet if not careful. Furthermore, these sneaky canids may become a nuisance if you’re careless and inadvertently feed them by leaving trash exposed.

I was probably in the third grade the first time I heard of local coyotes, although I had no idea at the time that that’s what they were. The tale of a February or March brush-pile den of “wild dogs that looked like small German shepherds” came from Bill Van Petersilge, a woodsman, hunter and surveyor who worked with my dad. Van Petersilge and wife Marge (Settright) owned Indian Acres, a expansive Mill River dairy farm in Deerfield, with a woodlot extending west to a back property line along Whately Glen Road. Van Petersilge was a World War II marine combat veteran and the survivor of many bullet-riddled seashore landings on the Pacific Theatre. My dad affectionately called him “Old Fred” for some reason, and they traveled New England and beyond in the same crew for decades as close friends and fellow pranksters. Anyway, Van Petersilge was out cutting cordwood that winter when the cutting’s best, and with his superior eyesight caught peripheral motion that turned out to be an aggressive bitch showing her teeth. She was protecting a den of pups hidden in the brush pile and meant business. There’s more to the story than I’m going to tell but it was the first mention I ever heard of local coyotes, and obviously it left an impression.

By the time I was an adult in the 1980s, these coydogs had proliferated to ubiquity and were familiar to anyone who spent a lot of time outdoors or traveling rural roads. Today this eastern coyote is a well-established component of our ecosystem and that of the entire Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, high and low, in neighborhoods, dense swamp and remote forest. No matter where you travel these days, be it Conway or Quincy, Bolton or Boston, Springfield or Sandwich, the sighting of an eastern coyote is not uncommon.

So, if you want to learn more and understand the North American evolution of this highly efficient predator, read Flores’ “Coyote America.” You won’t be disappointed. Who knows? It may even change your unfavorable opinion of this wild, misunderstood, ubiquitous New England creature.

Next up on the reading list? Oh, that’s easy: “Heart of a Lion” by William Stolzenburg. I stumbled across it as recommended reading on an Amazon site where I found Flores’ book, investigated further and — lo — discovered it’s about the wayward Black Hillls, S.D., cougar that wound up dead on a Connecticut highway after leaving a well documented trail through Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Ontario and who knows where else to the evening shadow of New York City. Should be a good read on a subject I, at the time of the road kill, felt smack-dab in the middle of.

Bears, Coyotes And A Little Tease

The Beldingville bears just keep on giving in this, a week that has thus far offered ideal morning weather for bottomland rambles. So, of course I took robust, refreshing walks through familiar riverside habitat each day, doubling the normal distance to extend the splendor of a cool north breeze, bright blue sky, and sparse, white, wispy clouds silently drifting south like dreamy, distant cotton swabs.

Had I time and willing companions other than the dogs, I would have headed for an upland hardwood wonderland to investigate ridge-top forest that looks quite inviting and lush from afar despite the dry spring and summer some call a drought. And you must understand that time is running out for woodland treks, with bear season looming the day after Labor Day. After that, explorative woodland romps could be hazardous to one’s health, not to mention potentially dangerous to a pair of rambunctious springer spaniels, one 12 but still plenty frisky when everything lines up.

Walking the wilds can stir the most pleasant, probing and profound pondering. It was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote: “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” And one of our own, Henry David Thoreau, believed that a lifetime of walking within a 10-mile radius of home could produce infinite new discoveries. Both men have stood the test of time. What they said in their day is still true and pure. That’s what gives them merit. Their words of wisdom have stood the test of time and will continue to do so for the ages. Walt Whitman, an American literary giant who overlapped Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century, was once asked whose words would be followed longer, Thoreau’s or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s. Without hesitation, Whitman correctly named Thoreau, considered a lesser literary figure and scholar than Emerson in his day.

But enough of that temporary digression spurred by invigorating morning walks in perfect weather, and back to our Beldingville bear discussion, because another articulate voice entered the fray last week. Which reminds me. I’d be a liar to deny that more than a few times it has crossed my meandering thoughts while hiking that it may have been unwise of me so close to hunting season to publicize recent interesting bear encounters in that rural Ashfield neighborhood. “What if,” my inner sanctum has queried, “hunters populate the woods up there and take out that sow which appeared to be with four cubs in a friend’s garage?” Well, let’s just say that was not my desired outcome when identifying the bears’ whereabouts. In fact, truthfully, I’d hate to learn I played any role in leaving four orphaned cubs to fend for themselves in our idyllic western uplands.

To briefly summarize the bear tales I am speaking of and have written about the past two weeks, first Jack Shea and dog Nye had a scary encounter, then neighbors Lester and Nancy Garvin had an unrelated sighting worth sharing in their nearby garage and yard. And now, after reading the two previous narratives, another sophisticated wildlife observer chimed in by Friday email, wishing to share his perspective on the mini-attack and potential bluff charge endured by Nye and Shea, plus the unusual configuration of a sow and four cubs that showed up at the Garvin homestead. What was unusual about the Garvins’ sighting was that the different sizes of the four cubs appeared to indicate two pairs of offspring born in successive years — rare for bears, which typically mate every other year, raising cubs into their second spring before rejecting them to produce another litter.

Our most recent correspondent is Deerfield Academy English teacher Joel Thomas-Adams, who has previously responded to other columns. A little online poking around will tell you that the man is much more than a teacher at one of the world’s most respected prep schools. With a concentration in English and environmental studies, he’s an Oxford Rhodes Scholar who’s studied bears of all types during stops in the Northern Rockies, the Bitterroots, the Great Smokies and the Nantahalas. These days, he doesn’t have to travel far from his Old Deerfield home, with bears inhabiting the Pocumtuck Ridge to the east and, to the west, t’other side the Deerfield River, in the Old World. And that doesn’t even include his own backyard the foraging black beasts occasionally visit. In Thomas-Adams’ opinion, the scenarios described in my last two columns were not “mysterious.” To the contrary, he says that what he’s read is to be expected under the right circumstances.

“In the case of Mr. Shea, what clearly happened had less to do with (foraging of) blackberries (in dense, shielding cover) and more to do with the presence of a cub,” wrote Thomas-Adams. “Whether he saw it or not, (Shea) and/or his dog must have crossed the line between a mother and her  cub, probably treed. Just about any black bear, otherwise, would just move on to avoid conflict. The incident you reported is classic cub-defense behavior.”

Ok, understood and accepted. But in defense of Shea — who spent three hours in my company the day after his harrowing incident and actually accompanied me on my daily walk while waiting for the veterinarian to stitch-up his pet’s chest — he too suspected a cub or cubs were nearby, even though he never saw one like he had 30-some years ago when bluff-charged by a bear in the same area with infant daughter Emily in tow.

“Regarding the four cubs of various sizes,” Thomas-Adams continued, “it’s relatively predictable after such a mild winter. ‘Induced ovulation’ for bears is considerably more amazing than mere opportunism. Sows can carry fertilized eggs from several potential fathers and decide which to implant and which to jettison, usually depending on how much fat they’ve stored when it comes time to den. All fattened up with a good den and a clement winter coming on, she might well have implanted four eggs last fall.”

Thomas-Adams says he’s twice witnessed sows with four cubs, “and a sow with three cubs used to visit our backyard (and feeders) predictably each June. In turn, one of her cubs had three offspring and kept up the practice, returning (last June) with three tiny cubs that she treed in our backyard when I interrupted her destroying my feeder.”

Again, I must defend Dr. John McDonald, the expert I reached out to for analysis of the Garvin sighting. Reviewing the available information, McDonald laid out three potential scenarios that could explain four cubs, two larger than the other two, which would lead one to believe they were from different litters over two years. McDonald — currently a Westfield Sate University wildlife biologist with previous stops at MassWildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — first speculated that all four cubs could have been from the same litter and two were noticeably larger (possibly males). So he did have that option covered before launching into two more possibilities.

Thomas-Adams didn’t limit his insightful musings to the black-bear discussion. No, he went on to a describe a diminishing family of orphaned coyote pups he’s been observing for some time in Deerfield’s South Meadows, along wetlands that I myself know very well from pheasant hunting. Better still, he closed with an enticing little tease about a subject dear to me. In mention of the intriguing standing stones of ancient lore and local mystery on high, lonesome Burnt Hill in Heath, he implored: “I’d love to hear more (based on something besides woo-woo mysticism, of which there is plenty around here) about indigenous stone formations. I was checking out the ones on a high ridge in Heath recently, and there is an as-yet untraced network that may well have much to tell us.”

Oh my! He’s preaching to the choir there. I have been immersed in deep history and deep ecology of the Pioneer Valley for three or four years now, and Mr. Thomas-Adams’ little nudge toward that high Heath mystery among low-bush upland blueberries is right square in my wheelhouse.

Let’s save it for another day.

COUGARS TALES: First, a Hog Hollow Road/Buckland sighting by Sandy Cardinal, who wished she could furnish more information but, “was too surprised to even fumble for my phone/camera.” However, she could say that her driveway is about 800 feet long and, driving out, about halfway down “we saw the cougar, about 25 or 30 feet in front of us. It was turning from the driveway to return to the woods on the right, where there is a patch of lawn about 12 feet wide, then another 20 feet under tall trees, slightly shaded, before the woods close in. At first I thought bobcat until it finished its turn and we saw its full length and tail. I’m estimating its back was about 3 feet long with tail to match. Color was a deep tawny, darker at the tip of its tail, which had a slight, not quite upturn at the end. It was in no hurry but moved with strength and purpose. It never looked back at us.”

Ms. Cardinal says she’s been enjoying playful back and forth with neighbors ever since her sighting, teasing them that she’ll add a rope with feathers to make her walking stick a large cat toy and calling “here kitty, kitty’ as she wanders. Her neighbors are “teasing back that they’ll bring along some Meow Mix.”

Meanwhile, for the second time in a month or so, longtime Heath correspondent Rol Hesselbart forwarded a New York Times article about reintroducing mountain lions to the Northeast (if they are not already here in limited numbers). First, the reintroduction was proposed as a way to reduce a burgeoning whitetail deer population, which has become hazardous to the health of highway travelers, not to mention expensive for insurance companies, who, of course, defer the cost to policy holders. The thinking was that reintroducing an efficient deer predator like cougars would act as a natural check and balance. But can you imagine the public outcry? It would be immense … and, for some, hysterical.

Now, this week, another NYT article proposes a similar Northeastern program to reduce the incidence of Lyme disease, which is rampant in the New York City suburbs, coastal Connecticut, New Jersey and beyond. The latest proposal is to bring back cougars and timber wolves to keep in check the most prevalent carriers of the tick-borne disease: deer, mice and chipmunks. Also, the article suggests that reintroduction of the two efficient predators would also cut down the ever-expanding “coywolf” population expanding into out urban and suburban neighborhoods. Sometimes called a hybrid coyote, this canine we’re by now all familiar with is, according to the NYT article, one-quarter wolf, two-thirds Western coyote and part domestic dog.


We’ll see how much traction these proposals get.

CATFISH DERBY RESULTS: Brothers Gary and Rick Hallowell’s seventh-annual Last Cast Catfish Derby held “anywhere on the Connecticut River and its tributaries for 36 hours last weekend (Friday night through Sunday) drew 48 competitors and raised $330 for Franklin County Big Brother/Big Sister. Old pro and previous two-time winner Bob “Catfish” Bedaw of South Deerfield looked like he would again walk away with top prize by catching an 11-pound, 5-ounce channel cat. But then the wily team comprised of James Lund of Montague, and father/son Mike and A.J. Sackett of Gardner put their heads together and pushed Bedaw aside. When it was all said and done, Mike Sackett won the $150 top prize with his 12-pound, 11-ounce cat. Second place ($100) went to Lund for his 12-pound, 1-ouncer, followed by Bedaw ($50) in third and Dave Chmura of Hadley ($25) in fourth at 11 pounds 2 ounces. Ken Magdycz of Plainfield won the $25 Sam’s gift-card door prize. The tourney was hosted by the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Club, with its clubhouse quietly nestled on the southern shore of Barton Cove. Pipione’s Sport Shop generously donated $100 and served a ticket headquarters.

An Unusual, Extended Bear Family?

How about that? A new twist to Beldingville bears, featured here last week after a harrowing incident that came this way from a local woodsman who, descending Ashfield’s distinctive, gumdrop-shaped Mt. Owen, ran into trouble.

For anyone who missed it, that tale involved Jack Shea, a retied 68-year-old Eaglebrook School teacher and Shelburne Falls native who lives off Beldingville Road in Ashfield. There, quite by chance, Shea became the unintended target of what unfolded like a “bluff charge.” Then, a few minutes later, he was indeed the intended target of aggressive body language from the same large, nervous black bear that had previously aimed its black fury at Shea’s 2-year-old black Lab bitch, Nye, rambling carefree in her neighboring forest.

Shea survived unscathed the first charge that came within spitting distance, then was able to short-circuit the second challenge by shouting at the bear walking downhill toward him. His pet wasn’t  so fortunate. No, frisky, young Nye absorbed a swat from the indignant, perturbed, feeding bear that was likely surprised while devouring sweet, salubrious wild blackberries on the edge of thick, thorny logging slash. The bear’s quick, powerful swipe resulted in several abrasions across Nye’s upper chest, two of which were deep enough to require eight stitches at the Greenfield veterinary hospital Shea visited for repair the next morning, after discovering his pet aggressively licking at the scabs.

But, enough of that story, told in detail last week. On to a new tale emanating from the same Ashfield neighborhood. From there,  a reader chimed in by email to share  another fresh bear story that immediately attracted my interest, not to mention that of Westfield State University wildlife biologist John McDonald, a bear expert to whom I forwarded Nancy Garvin’s thorough, well-written  narrative along with  my response. The blow-by-blow narrative told of a situation I immediately suspected to be unusual. But, being no expert, I reached out to credentialed McDonald, who confirmed the rarity of what Garvin had witnessed.

Garvin lives a mile and a half away on the same Beldingville Road section of Ashfield where Shea’s incident occurred. She and husband Lester Garvin, of Lake Hitchcock mapping fame these days, are beekeeping hobbyists and thus must be alert for bears, which can be a nuisance around honey hives. Plus, husband Les has a deep interest in wildlife, having devoted undergraduate and graduate studies to wildlife biology at the University of New Hampshire and UMass-Amherst. So, let’s just say the Garvins are not strangers to bears.

On July 21, Nancy walked out on her back porch looking for her husband and had the most peculiar sighting unfold before her disbelieving eyes. First, there was a good-sized bear cub standing a short distance away at the garage door behind her husband’s truck,  parked inside. With sweet-smelling beekeeping equipment inside, she figured the bear was interested and about to investigate, so she yelled at the cute ball of black fur and was seemingly ignored.

When she started down the steps, two smaller cubs “came tumbling out of the garage on the other side of the truck.” Then, when she yelled again, another cub, the same size as the bigger one she first saw came out behind the smaller ones. It gets better. Soon, a fifth bear, much larger, assumed to be an adult sow, came out on the same side of the truck as the first cub, and there they stood, all five of them — a sow with what appeared to be two cubs from this year and two from last year. No, not a common sight.

“I yelled at the mother and she stood up and looked at me before turning and heading away from the garage,” wrote Nancy, who  started to follow and realized the cubs were scrambling up a nearby tree. “So I stayed where I was until the mother collected the young and headed off.”

Of course, husband Lester knew that this configuration  of sow and cubs from separate litters was unusual. He had studied bears and was quite sure females had cubs every other year, raising their young into their second spring before rejecting them and  finding a mate and start a new family in the winter den. Curious, the Garvins told experienced bear hunters in town what Nancy had seen and received unanimous confirmation that it was unusual for a sow to be with cubs of two different age classes.

When I myself read her tale, I immediately responded to tell her I concurred with the assessment but had forwarded my response to McDonald, who I was certain could add much insight, maybe even speculation as to why the five bears were together. The man did not disappoint. He confirmed the rarity, admitted he had heard a few similar tales, and offered a few hypotheses:

• 1.) Pehaps the cubs were the same age but different sizes. Litters of four are not uncommon and there can be some cubs that get bigger faster within the litter. “However, I’m betting that if you say two were a lot bigger than the other two, that they really were.”;
• 2) Maybe it was just a coincidence that the sow and her two cubs found the garage and beekeeping supplies at the same time the two yearlings happened to be there. Yearlings usually leave the mother in late May or early June, but often stay with each other for weeks or months before permanently separating. So, yes, it is possible that they just happened to be there together … and, if so, the yearlings would still act as subordinates to the adult female;
• And, finally the third and most interesting scenario, 3) Even though bears do have a breeding season, usually in late May through August or so, unlike deer, which ovulate on a regular basis and can only breed within a short time window (a day or two per month), there is evidence that black bears are induced ovulators and only shed eggs in the presence of a male. Females with new cubs usually won’t associate with males and drive them off. Males will sometimes try to kill new cubs, the thinking being that they don’t know who the father is, but if they kill the cubs, the female will be available to breed that year. … “What could have happened in this case is that the female could have been separated from her new cubs for some time during the breeding season last year (cubs can live on their own in June or so of the first year), and they were apart long enough for her to encounter a male and get bred before reuniting with her cubs. Once reunited, she would have kept those cubs with her (pregnant) and given birth to new cubs in this past winter’s den.”

Asked if a sow would possibly adopt orphaned cubs crying out for their lost mother, McDonald said he doubted it.

“Once sows are out of their dens and free-ranging,” he wrote, “they  likely would not respond to cubs not their own. I believe biologists have attempted to foster cubs with females with litters during the post-denning season and have always failed. Sows either kill or abandon them. On the other hand, it is pretty easy to do so while the sows are still in their dens.”

McDonald asked the Garvins to keep and eye out for future visits by the same extended bear family, and said he hopes that publicizing this unusual sighting might coax out additional reports from the people living in the same neighborhood who see or have seen this same unlikely grouping of bears.


If you want to read a book with much expert insight about bears, bear behavior and bear interaction with human beings, pick up a copy of “Grizzly Years,” by Doug Peacock.

A Green Beret Vietnam vet who returned to the states in 1967 and needed time to regroup and process out his identity, Peacock lived for many years studying grizzly bears in Yellowstone and the Washington State. He named many of these massive beasts, could identify many from afar, learned their habits and the way they interacted socially with other bears, and survived more than one “bluff charge” while trying to get close-up photos.

I would recommend this book on many levels as one of my better reads over the last few years. Of course, I knew Vietnam vets who returned home and “drifted” for many years before re-entering society. They didn’t wander off to live in the wild around grizzlies, but they were dealing with many of the same issues that troubled Peacock.

Beldingville Bear Encounter

Who hasn’t experienced vivid, realistic, twilight dawn dreams that transport them back many years to an indelible, possibly terrifying memory in the company of dear friends or hated rivals, the whole thing presented in living color and dynamic Dolby sound that seems as real as the distant day on which it happened.

Then, of course, there are those sudden, spontaneous, real-life occurrences that drop unexpectedly into your lap and immediately flash back to some distant, haunting memory … not at all unlike the surreal scenario that unfolded before Jack Shea’s worried eyes Sunday morning off Beldingville Roas in Ashfield, a reoccurrence more realistic than any nightmare.

An avid bowhunter and outdoorsman, the recently-retired 68-year-old Shea taught for 44 years at Eaglebrook School, covering subjects including art and outdoor adventure. A Shelburne Falls native and member of old Arms Academy’s final graduating Class of 1967, he also happens to be the proud grandson of late former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Sharkey. These days Shea resides in the rural nirvana of a secluded Beldingville home he built of native timber 33 years ago. Looking south from this peaceful abode, Mount Owen dominates the landscape as a steep gumdrop mound of stone and mixed forest, mostly hardwoods, where deer and bear and — dare I? — big cats are known to lurk. Shea knows that mountain like the back of his hand.

Our story begins before 10 a.m. Sunday, when Shea was out on an early-season deer-scouting mission, walking up a familiar old logging trail along which he intended to install trail cameras to identify potential prey for the approaching fall whitetail-deer hunt. Accompanying him was his beloved 2-year-old black Labrador retriever bitch, Nye, named after Nye, Mont., one of Shea’s favorite elk-hunting haunts. The rambunctious pup was having a blast rollicking willy-nilly through the mixed hardwoods and hemlock, probing every new scent as all gundogs do, with head held high and alert.

Not far from a landmark site of daunting memories dating back some 31 years to a perilous black-bear encounter he had experienced with infant daughter Emily, now 33, in his arms, he recalled it as he usually does up there. Who wouldn’t? That day, taking a leisurely walk through the woods with his infant daughter, he had run into a large sow with cubs. The protective sow charged him, probably trying to buy enough time for her twin cubs to climb a tree to safety. The protective momma bear raced right up to a stunned Shea before turning and running back to where it had come from. By that time, one of the cubs had treed near the Shea’s. Jack pointed up and said, “See the bear?” to oblivious young Emily.

Well, this time around, on Sunday morning, preoccupied reading deer sign on an alternate, direct, pathless route back home, Shea had momentarily lost track of his rambling pet when his tranquil mood abruptly changed at the sound of an alarming yelp some 50 yards uphill. Shea immediately feared that the distressful sound had come from Nye, who may have either “wrenched her leg or run into a bear,” similar to he and daughter Emily that harrowing day many years ago.

Shea turned to scan the wooded uphill terrain and right away picked up the motion of a big black beast barreling full speed ahead down the hill on a direct collision course with him. Then, running ahead of the bear, also all out, he noticed dwarfed Nye, sprinting for her life and her master’s protection. The nervous dog, in full panic mode by the time she reached Shea, panting, circling her owner and trying to gain security by cowering between his feet when the bear raced right into their kitchen without a trace of palpable fear or any intention to stop. Unarmed and on full-alert, Shea knew he had a potential problem on his hands. Maybe even a crisis.

“I’ve been around grizzly bears in Alaska and was trained to stand tall, raise my arms over my head and make myself as large as possible when one charges,” said Shea, a big man in the 6-foot-3, 230-pound neighborhood. “As it got close, I uttered a load, throaty growl or scream, which stopped the bear on a dime less than 10 feet from me.”

He figured the bear estimated to weight in the 250- to 300-pound range was either a sow with unseen cubs in the area or maybe even a solo boar devouring blackberries on the other side of a dense thicket when the undetected pet got too close. Surprise is not a good thing in such confrontations, when a bear can feel threatened.

“It’s difficult to say what precipitated that charge,” reasoned MassWildlife Information and Education Chief Marion Larson, when told of it, “but bears will run toward humans in bluff charges responding to danger. They’re trying to scare the target and avoid conflict. Our bear biologists are quite familiar with bluff charges but I don’t know of anyone ever being attacked, even when cubs are nearby. The bear is just sending a message to leave the area.”

Well, whatever this bear’s intention was on this occasion, it got to within spitting distance of Shea before stopping, spinning around and sprinting back up the hill it had just descended. A relieved Shea watched the retreat until the bear got out of sight, let out a deep breath, conducted a cursory inspection of Nye for damage, found none, and turned to walk away toward home. Before long, still internally overwhelmed by what he had just witnessed, Shea spotted a stump and decided to sit down long enough to fire off a quick text spinning his neighborhood tale for wife Christie. In the process, he sensed something approaching, looked uphill and, yes indeed, that bear was ambling back down the hill toward him. The beast, perhaps unhappy that Shea hadn’t left the area, halted about 50 yards out at Shea’s yell and reversed course back uphill.

Feeling added urgency to immediately vacate the area and take his dog home with him, Shea realized that Nye was nowhere to be found and worried that maybe his dear pet was injured and lying down somewhere. Nonetheless, still spooked, he “beelined it home” only to discover that his traumatized dog had beaten him there. Still traumatized, Nye soon retired, tail between her legs, to her cushioned dog bed in Shea’s bedroom, where she remained for most of the night.

Next morning, before 8, Shea’s wife noticed their pet furiously licking at its chest and suggested to her husband that he inspect the area for injuries. A quick look revealed a deep, scabbed gouge across the upper chest near the jugular, necessitating a trip to Dr. Edward L. Funk’s Brookside Animal Hospital in Greenfield. The veterinarian shaved the dog’s chest, exposing the full extent of the bear’s scratches and closing the deepest two cuts with seven stitches above and one below.

“Nye is one lucky dog,” said a relieved Shea, snapping cell-phone photos in my driveway on his way home, “and I must say I’m one very happy dog owner,” … vet bill notwithstanding.

A few days later, with Nye still “lying low,” according to Shea, the man was still uncertain whether he’d ever again allow his pet to accompany him up Mount Owen. But somehow you get the idea that the animal learned a valuable lesson Sunday, and will likely forevermore be extremely cautious when bear scent enters her nostrils.

Chalk it up as experience.


OK, so now what are we to make of this rare local encounter between man and dog and a random bear?

Should we be afraid to walk through the woods? Keep dogs leashed for all woodland rambles?


Well … it depends.

No doubt we should always be alert and wary when patrolling bear country. According to wildlife biologist John McDonald, the former MassWildlife Deer Project Leader who’s done a lot of bear research and been the target of more than one bluff charge, it’s always a good idea to make noise in the woods to telegraph your presence long before a bear sees you.

“From what I can gather, that Ashfield bear had no idea the man and dog were in the woods until the dog was right on top of it. That’s why it reacted as it did,” he said. “If the bear knew the man and his dog were there, he would have been long gone. They must have been quiet, the wind must have been wrong and the vegetation was probably thick, so the bear was caught by surprise.

“Had the man, not his dog, surprised the bear, most likely it would have run away. Bears don’t seek conflict with humans. Dogs are another story. Bear won’t hesitate to go after a dog.”

Like his former colleague, MassWildlife I&E guru Larson, McDonald said he knew of and has witnessed many bluff charges in Massachusetts and cannot recall any that resulted in physical attacks.

“They charge to send a message,” he said. “I’ve seen bears get to within six or eight feet and start opening and closing their mouth, clicking their teeth together to make a threatening sound, before running off. They want you scare you, convince you it’s time to leave their territory.”
Informed of that expert analysis, Shea didn’t challenge it but did have a little cautionary addendum.

“I may get bell for Nye to announce her presence up there,” he said. “Because in a situation like Sunday, my dog put me in potential danger, a problem dog owners should be aware of.”


I have, myself, encountered many bears in my woodland travels and have never felt threatened or been the target of a bluff charge. Every bear I have personally encountered, with or without dogs, has fled.

Last year on a morning walk near home, I wrote in this space about jumping a bear from close quarters. Although I must have had made plenty of noise leading up to flushing that beast, the bear must have gambled that I would pass wide and it decided to lay low in the thicket to continue feeding on spring skunk cabbage. The beast guessed wrong and bailed out like a runaway locomotive when my dog got to within maybe 10 feet of it, both of us separated by a dense, impenetrable wild-rose-bush border. Still, even though we got close, that bear took off, making no attempt to challenge us. But it had to have been aware of my presence at least 100 or 200 yards before it fled.

Although I hate to leash my dogs and always allow them to run free on upland hardwood spines, that description is somewhat misleading because I can always have them under control with Tri-Tronics remote-controlled collars if they don’t respond to the shrill whistle dangling from a lanyard around my neck. If my dogs disappear out of sight for too long, I first try to whistle them back (which announces our presence to any animals within earshot), and if the dogs don’t promptly reappear, I can bring them back with the collars, which come equipped with audible and adjustable electric-shock enforcement. The collars are quarter-mile leashes, although I can’t say I ever allow them to get that far away before bringing them back into  sight. Plus, I often speak to my dogs during our walks, just silly talk that unintentionally marks my presence to wild beasts long before I get too close for comfort.

Among the golden rules of etiquette all woodsmen and women must be cognizant of when in the wild is the one that demands always to respect nature, be alert to potential danger, and try at all costs to avoid it.

Why invite trouble?