Out & About: Plainfield talk on mountain lions rekindles question of cougars

  • A mountain lion.

  • FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the California Department of Fish and Game shows a mountain lion. While mountain lion populations are healthy across California, the situation is becoming increasingly dire for the isolated population in the Santa Monica Mountains. Lions need as many as 100 square mile territories but the estimated 10 cats in this mountain range are hemmed in by freeways and other development and without a way to link to the greater population, biologists say the Santa Monica Mountain lions will go extinct. DNA tests indicate that mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains are inbreeding, another sign of the challenges facing the species struggling to survive in the midst of one of the nation's most densely populated urban regions. (AP Photo/California Department of Fish and Game, File) Mountain lions, like this one in California, predominantly live in the western part of the United States.

  • P-33, a 15-month-old mountain lion kitten, was photographed with a kill in Los Angeles' Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. She ate for about an hour before her mother and brother showed up. (National Park Service/TNS)

Valley News Calendar Editor
Saturday, February 09, 2019

Few wildlife topics inspire passion in the Twin States quite like the debate over whether mountain lions are in our midst.

I am fascinated by people who are fascinated by mountain lions, as well as the fervor that follows when someone asks if mountain lions — or, if you like, cougars, or pumas or catamounts — reside in the Twin State.

Whether they’re here or not is a question I’ll leave to biologists and other experts, one of whom will be at an event in Plainfield next week, which spurred this column.

The more interesting question to me: “What is it about mountain lions that people are so drawn to?”

First, a brief history lesson: Vermont used to be covered in forests. Then, a majority of the land was cleared for farming, forcing those animals — including mountain lions and wolves — out of their homes. Additionally, mountain lions were seen as a threat to farmers’ livestock and, to make money, people would become bounty hunters to go after them and any other animal that gave homesteaders a headache.

“We didn’t just lose mountain lions and wolves. We lost beaver and deer,” said Kim Royar, a biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. “Many of our most iconic wildlife species disappeared from the landscape.”

The last wild mountain lion known to be killed in Vermont was taken in Barnard in 1881. Its taxidermied body is on display at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier.

As Vermont began to restart its forests, some animals started to make a comeback, beavers and deer among them.

Back in 2011 a mountain lion from South Dakota found its way to Connecticut where it was hit and killed by a vehicle. This showed in part that mountain lions are capable of making the journey.

“Prior to that, I would’ve thought that the chances of us having wild mountain lion coming through the state of Vermont were pretty small,” Royar said. “I never say never anymore. If I’ve learned one thing in my career: Things that I never expected to happen happen over time.”

The Fish and Wildlife Department gets about 50 to 70 calls a year from residents reporting a mountain lion sighting.

“We never say never to somebody,” Royar said. “But if there’s no real evidence out there, if there’s no way to follow up, there’s nothing we can do.”

Evidence would be mountain lion scat or fur, or photographs.

“They’re pretty much distributed throughout the state and there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to them,” Royar said of the reports, adding that Vermont has found no evidence of a breeding population in the state. “We do get a few that are highly credible.”

The same is true in New Hampshire. Patrick Tate, a wildlife biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, receives at least 20 reports a year of alleged mountain lion sightings.

“Of those, maybe 10 percent come in with a picture of an animal or a picture of a track,” Tate said. “There isn’t a talk I go to where the mountain lion doesn’t come up by the public.”

While the department investigates the claims, they have yet to find proof. Some callers may be mistaking a bobcat, which has a short tail and is smaller, for a mountain lion.

“We have to scrutinize every one of them,” Tate said. “With no evidence, a state agent can’t say whether the animal was there.”

A researcher who has set up 160 cameras around the state to track wildlife has compiled 250,000 photographs, none of which contain mountain lions, according to Tate.

“To date, no biologist has documented a mountain lion track,” he said.

Big cats have fascinated people for centuries. From lions to tigers to jaguars to lynx, there is just something about the majestic mammals that keeps us drawn in. For me, it’s their independence and the graceful way they carry themselves. “Poetry in motion,” is the phrase that comes to my mind. I also admire their independence, and I think they’re beautiful.

From 6:30-8 p.m. on Feb. 18, Sue Morse, a wildlife ecologist who has studied cougars out west since 1980, will give a talk about cougars at the Singing Hills Conference Center in Plainfield (71 King Drive). The free talk is being hosted by the Meriden Bird Club. Morse also will lead a wildlife tracking walk at the same location from 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. that morning. Registration is required, and the cost is $30.

“In the last 20 years, it’s been extraordinary what’s been going on with movement toward the east,” Morse said. “We can’t shut the door on the future. Just because cougars haven’t been here as a breeding population for decades doesn’t mean they couldn’t return here.”

In order for cougars to come back, they must have a habitat and food source that can support them, which theoretically parts of the Twin States have, Royar said.

“The public would have to be willing to tolerate them,” Royar said. “That’s another big ‘if.’ ”

Mountain lions are carnivores and feast on deer and smaller mammals.

“The habitat is there, the prey species are there,” Tate said. “There’s acknowledgment that it could happen.”

But why the public fascination of their existence? Why the debate over whether they’ve been to the Twin States?

Morse summed it up best.

“Whether people know it or not, there’s a longing people have for a world that’s not as damaged as what we have done, a world that’s more pristine, a world that’s big enough for a top predator to exert its positive influence on plants and animals by keeping deer numbers in check,” she said. “More than wolves, more than bears, it’s my experience that people are much, much more interested in the whole phenomenon of the possibility that cougars can be here, probably because there’s a yearning that a lot of people have for something that’s really, truly wild and a landscape that can support an animal like that.”

What a world that would be.

Editor’s note: Call Meriden Bird Club President Margaret Drye at 603-675-9159 to sign up for the tracking workshop that Morse will lead and for more information about the event. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.