Cougar Spatz

Oh no. Not again.

Of course, I should have known better. Doesn’t cougar chatter always draw feedback? Sometimes from faraway places you’d never imagine? Although, really, I can’t claim this one came out of the clear blue. No. In fact, I had given thought of hitting this man with an email after fielding the suspicious telephone report of five cougars crossing Route 116 in front of a northbound vehicle in broad daylight in North Amherst of all places.

Having never lived where cougars roam, I simply wanted to ask, “Could this be, even in places with high cougar density?”

I was reluctant.

Well, Cougar Rewilding Foundation (CRF) President Chris Spatz never addressed that subject in his recent email. Yes, true, but he sure did chime in on other topics of interest that I’m more than willing to share. And listen here: I hold the utmost respect for the CRF folks when it comes to cougar queries. These people — formerly the Eastern Cougar Network — are activists squarely on the side of the beast, and would like nothing more than to re-establish a (manageable) coast-to-coast population of America’s largest feline to greet colonial settlers to the Northeast.

What Spatz most wanted to correct was my assertion that a reproductive cougar population, though small, has reached Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where numerous sightings had been reported for decades. This, I know I have read and heard at lectures, but when it comes to cougar tales, one in my line of work must be cautious. There’s always questionable stuff circulating — like, for instance, five cougars crossing the road in western Massachusetts within earshot of UMass’ Southwest dorm towers. I had instant trouble getting my head around that wild morning tale told to me by the breathless witness.

I wrote last week what I have learned after many years of serious cougar inquiry and research, including purchase and careful reading of the Eastern Cougar Network textbook. My point was that cougar dispersers have been infiltrating the Northeast for decades, and that now even an Associated Press story claimed that federal wildlife officials believe this western spillover migration will eventually reach the Northeast. That’s quite a claim from people who declared Eastern Cougars extinct a few years back, just weeks before a wayward traveler, it a young male from South Dakota’s Black Hills, was killed on a Connecticut highway not 100 miles from New York City.

Well, Mr. Spatz, who’s had his differences with state and federal wildlife officials before, isn’t buying that logic, according to a detailed email with a cluster of cyberspace links attached to support him. There are way too many links to list here. If interested, check them out in the comment attached to last week’s column archived in my blog at

Spatz wastes no time getting to the point, beginning his polite email addressed to “Mr. Sanderson,” with:

“A female cougar has not been documented in Michigan. A female cougar has not been documented in Minnesota or Iowa or Missouri. Cougar breeding has not been documented anywhere east of the Missouri River. Young males roam east from the Dakota/Nebraska colonies, roaming hundreds of miles looking for females that aren’t there, ending up in the Michigan UP and Connecticut and perhaps, most recently, Kentucky. Without females, there will be no recovery to the Midwest, let alone farther east.”

And exactly what is it that will prevent spillover migration of a growing western population from penetrating areas east of the Missouri river? According to Spatz, liberal hunting regulations in the states along the fringe of the western cougar range.

“Due to high hunting quotas and open seasons declared east of the Dakota/Nebraska cougar colonies, the number of dispersers as measured annually by mortalities/captures has been reduced from the most, a tiny trickle of 16 in 2011, to nine in 2012, to eight in 2013, to a few drops, six in 2014. Fewer dispersers, less potential for recolonization.”

Yes, indeed his numbers are convincing. Yet I have learned when it comes to wildlife controversies like this to never say never. The way I look at it is that dispersers have already reached us despite no-holds-barred open season on cougars across to land in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Maybe it is unlikely that a female will ever reach these parts, or even the upper Midwest Great Lakes region, for that matter. But does “no documented females” mean there are zero or that no one has yet proven there is now or ever has been a solitary wanderer to pass through?

Cougar sightings are 95 percent unreliable, according to Spatz and many other experts from the studies he sent me in the form of hyperlinks. Yet there’s no denying that after a century’s worth of New England sightings that went ignored so long as misidentifications, a real, live cougar turned up dead in the road in a most unlikely location.

Yes, that road-killed cat was a young male that fit snuggly into the disperser profile and made it to Milford, Conn. So what will they say when a dead female carcass appears on the roadside in Michigan or Minnesota or even Massachusetts? Well, I hope to live to see the day because, like I said before, especially pertaining to the return of long-lost wild critters with staying power: Never say never. That’s my motto, and I’m sticking with it.

As they say in Chicopee or Ludlow or Torndike/Tree Rivers or wherever the heck it is that I’ve heard it in my travels: “Maybe I’m stupitt.”


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2 Responses to Cougar Spatz

  1. No problem, Chris. I’ll keep my eyes/ears open as has been the case for many years, ever since a work crew on break from hollowing out a new, larger reservoir saw, to their astonishment, a cougar pass. Knowing the people, I never for a minute doubted the sighting, and the USFWS actually sent researcher Virginia Fifield out here to set up an office and try to substantiate sightings for several years. BTW, sorry for calling your organization originally the Eastern Cougar Network. I should have gone with my first hunch, ECF, which on a last-minute whim on deadline, I changed to network. I was unable to track down original name online, but have worked with you people for many years now and hope to do so for many more. Keep up the good work.

  2. Mr. Sanderson,

    With respect to cougar sightings, ECF/CRF was built and wanted to find evidence from sightings. Indeed, we were founded by a houndsmen, Todd Lester, who had a close encounter. These are often the most powerful of outdoor/wildlife experiences for people. What we tell folks is to cherish them. Feel blessed. However, we’ve spent thousands of hours on the ground following up reports without finding a single piece of evidence. Paul Beier’s research on sightings in cougar habitat backs that up. When we track cougars out west – cold tracking, not from sightings – we find evidence within an hour or two. And the photographs sent to us are either other animals or hoaxes, all but one of hundreds in 15 years. If we had evidence from sightings, we wouldn’t be advocating for restorations.

    It remains our deepest hope that a female cougar defies the gauntlet, reaches the Boundary Waters or the Ozarks or the Michigan UP, finds a male, rears a litter, and begins nursing a new cougar colony that much closer to the Northeast.

    Thank you for your lively interest, and for the plug.



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