Cougars & Stuff

Daffodils stand straight as an Episcopal preacher, cardinals sing their joyous tunes and life is good, spring optimism saturating my nostrils, filling my lungs, penetrating deep into my cynical soul. I love spring but must admit it was not kind to me as a kid. When an adolescent’s sap ascends from his roots, oh my, the trouble it unleashes for some of us. But I’m old now and that’s behind me, right? Never know. I long ago learned to proceed with caution.

Many subjects worth traipsing into this week, starting with a reader flagging me down departing from my morning walk with the dogs through Sunken Meadow. It was neighbor Ed Galvin, an old skiing buddy of my late Uncle Ralph’s who I’ve known since his days at Clark’s Sport Shop. He signaled me to stop with a smile, pulled over to the side of the road, exited his gold Toyota Tacoma, and hurried toward me, magazine in hand: Winter 1994 “Vermont Life,” on it a two-inch chartreuse paste-on note directing me to Page 20. I opened to the page and discovered a color photo of a cougar, four-legged, a headline above reading “THE CAT IS BACK.” But hold that thought a minute. First, a few of other items worth mentioning, including the death of a loyal reader, new books on the parlor chest, an embarrassing correction, and various observations about new hunting and fishing regulations that have people squawking.

Let’s start with the passing of Leyden reader Edward M. Wells, 85, who died suddenly, the way we all should go, last week at home. A former teacher and World War II Marine, we were unlikely friends, I suppose, but he read this column, chirped in from time to time and even visited my Greenfield Meadows home a few times. Our common interest was this place we call home, the Pioneer Valley, where we both worshiped deep roots he referred to as “DNA in the valley’s oldest cemeteries.” He was proud of it and so am I, thus our friendship. I’m sure he cringed at some of my opinions about public schools and teachers, not to mention politics, but we got through it to establish a friendly relationship. I will miss bumping into him at the Big Y, greeting him, speaking to him. A dignified, soft-spoken, died-in-the-wool Republican typically dressed in a tweed jacket, he sometimes didn’t know how to take me but would eventually squeeze out a wry grin and engage in conversation that grew livelier as it progressed. A cousin of his emailed me on the morning he died to say “Mike” spoke highly of me. She even shared something he often told her told that I hesitate to repeat: “Gary has a true feeling for the ground and those who have come before. I may not exactly agree with some of his philosophies, but he is a fine young man.” I’m sure my enemies and political foes will choke on that one. Oh, well. Isn’t it too bad that legislators on opposite sides of the aisle can’t be as accepting?

As for the new books that arrived Monday morning, I’m sure my wife wishes I’d curtail these purchases. They add up. But, like I told her, it could be worse than reading, maybe even getting into mischief, the forces of Satan lurking around every corner. I tell her I don’t look for mischief, it has always found me. But let’s not go there. Deep down, she understands my reading and does respect my intellectual curiosity, not to mention that independent, at times defiant, streak. Anyway, I do look forward to perusing the “American Political Biography” catalog that arrives monthly in my mailbox from Jeff Speirs of Newtown, Conn., where my late Uncle Ray (Keane), an artist and good man, once owned a home. I ordered three books this time: one on the infamous Haymarket bombing along with biographies of Timothy Leary and Ambrose Bierce. You gotta love a man like Bierce, who served with distinction and valor in the Civil War, then had the audacity to say that some of the bravest soldiers followed their conscience to the firing squad. As for Timothy Leary, that Sixties icon of “Tune-in, turn-on, drop-out” fame, well, what can I say? I’ve always harbored a fascination for the man and his medicine.

Actually, I ordered four books from Speirs but was too late on the most important one, about Massachusetts’ Democratic-Republican Party of Elbridge Gerry, eventually James Madison’s vice president. Old revolutionaries and radicals, the Democratic-Republicans were 1790s anti-federalists from the founding-Puritan mold. Because my fifth great-grandfather, Deacon Thomas Sanderson of Whately, was one of them and used newly elected Gov. Gerry to facilitate the controversial 1811 annexation of a long-disputed portion of Deerfield to Whately, I have for some time wanted to understand precisely what those people stood for. Speirs’ catalog alerted me to the Harvard Press title and, after coming up empty on his site, I found another first edition for 15 bucks on bookfinder.com, in unread condition, dust jacket “near fine.” Hey, even saved myself a sawbuck. My wife will like that. The book will likely be my final purchase on the subject. Then I intend to pore over the Joseph Hawley Papers, looking for correspondence between Hawley and my Whately ancestor, also whatever peripheral information I can glean. I thought the 18th century Northampton radical’s papers resided at the Smith College Library before a Wednesday email begged to differ. We’ll see. But enough of that, on to the MassWildlife stuff.

Let’s start with the correction. I was wrong. Sporting licenses did not go up 30 bucks as reported here last week. The price is the same as last year, not a nickel more. I just erred when purchasing mine online, accepting two “Wildlands Fund Donations” I didn’t want. I feel like I was tricked into it and probably could get a refund by swallowing my pride and complaining. But it was my fault. I should have double-checked when the $93.30 charge caught my eye. Won’t happen again. But, while discussing hunting and fishing, a few other quick tidbits:
• First, don’t forget that lead sinkers are illegal this year, and folks are grousing about the steel and aluminum replacements, which, for one thing, are expensive, and, for another, are much lighter than lead;
• Second, there’s a new antlerless-permit system that has people scratching their heads. No one’s quite sure just how the new random-selection method works, but it won’t be drawn at a public lottery as in the past. So I guess we’re just going to have to trust the fellas to do the right thing, never a guarantee;
• Third, all hunting harvests except shotgun deer-kills can now be recorded online without going to a checking station. Of course, “Suspicious Sammy” warns it’s a bad idea to check anything online because it may flash the green light for game wardens to come snooping around your home, where they could stumble across some picayune violation. Although that concern didn’t cross my mind, it did cross my path and I thought I’d pass it on.

Which brings us back to that familiar subject of cougars, and the 1994 “Vermont Life” story opining that a beast today declared extinct was alive and well in Vermont 18 short years ago. Hmmmmm? Imagine that! Galvin must have stumbled across the magazine while spring cleaning and knew just the man who would be interested. After looking for me at home a few times and finding my truck gone, he caught me on my daily rambles and flagged me down. The magazine story was fascinating, even more so when I read a quote by John Hall, a Vermont Fish and Wildlife source I have known for many years, admitting that catamounts, gone for more than 100 years, were back in Vermont. I have never before heard or seen such an admission from a government official. Wow!

The story unfolded in the snowy Northeast Kingdom town of Craftsbury, Vt., where a laid-off Hanover man was visiting his grandmother the day after April Fools’ Day 1994. Out spreading bird seed, he noticed movement in the woods and saw three large animals he assumed were deer. When they briefly broke into the open, he was stunned to see three long-tailed mountain lions about 100 feet away. Spooked, he scooted back to the safety of Grandma’s house and phoned the State Police, who gave him the number of a Craftsbury man chasing cougar sightings. He placed the call, the investigator answered, was extremely interested and soon arrived onsite with a couple of his sons.

With deep, imperfect tracking snow on the ground, the prints were easier to follow than identify, but the experienced outdoorsmen knew they were dealing with a big cat. Carrying a video camera just in case, the fellas followed the tracks several hundred yards and finally came upon unusual scat samples, which they flicked with a ballpoint pen into a plastic battery case for analysis. The sample was sent to an Oregon wildlife-forensics lab and, sure enough, was identified as cougar scat. Similar to house cats, cougars wash themselves by wetting their front paw with their tongue and rubbing it over their head. Thus cougar scat carries easily identifiable leg hairs, which the Vermont sample contained.

Isn’t it amazing how, despite that discovery and subsequent cougar scat found at the Quabbin, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service took it upon itself a year ago to declare Eastern Cougars extinct? If you recall, less than three months later, a wild, transient cougar turned up as road kill on a southeastern Connecticut highway.

Oooooops!

Don’t you hate it when stuff like that happens?

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