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.

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