Two More RECORDER articles from recent weeks

No way?

It never ceases to amaze me how, whenever I write about cougars, emails come flying at me, reporting local sightings or curious discoveries that could be the work of cougars.

Last week was no different: first, a deer hunter who explores Mt. Toby’s deepest reaches, then a woman who lives and grew up in Sunderland, and finally, another lady who lives in Greenfield and dabbles in wildlife photography. The latter says she clearly saw a cougar cross the road in front of her car in West Deerfield. The other woman was driving between Sunderland and Montague when she saw what she suspects was a cougar pouncing on something out in a field, As for the man, well, in his woodland travels he’s seen several weird signs that make him wonder, little clues that just don’t add up, and unfamiliar scat woven with hair.

Years ago, all three of these latest reports to cross my path, plus scores of others that I have written about, and maybe even some I chose not to, would have been ignored as misidentification, fantasy or hoax. Not anymore. No, not since a real, live cougar was killed on a southern Connecticut highway a few years back, coincidentally just weeks after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared Eastern Cougars extinct. Prior to that, the cougar that greeted New England’s earliest colonial settlers and remained here well into the 19th century were classified as “endangered.”

Why the classification change? Well, that seems to be the million-dollar question — one that has never been adequately explained. Wildlife experts know there is only one North American cougar species, be it north, south, east or west, and it was no secret that cougars prowl out west and down south. So how could anyone possibly say there was no chance that this king of North American wildcats could repopulate and/or pass through reforested Northeastern haunts of old? Or, come to think of it, how could anyone dismiss the possibility that perhaps a few big cats have always hidden out in remote Northeastern pockets and were from time to time sporadically spotted by 20th century witnesses when caught “wandering off” closer to civilization?

The new “official” theory identifies Northeastern cougars as “dispersers,” that is young western cats pushed east by dominant males, which makes sense. As populations of predators like cougars expand, doesn’t their range also expand? Plus, don’t forget the rampant wildfires sweeping through western cougar country. Couldn’t these devastating wildfires, which I don’t recall hearing much about as a kid, have an impact on western cougar displacement and migration? It would seem so, though I’ve never heard or read a word about it.

In my travels over the past 20 or more years, whenever the subject of cougars has come up in conversation with outdoorsmen and women — all reliable sources who know the woods of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and beyond — all seem to say the same thing: “They’re here, too, but for some reason, the authorities won’t admit it.” Then when you review the official response to Florida panther sightings in the 1980s and Michigan cougar sightings in the 1990s — both states that now have reproductive populations — you’ll recognize a similar pattern to what’s occurring here now. Officials first deny any possibility of cougar sightings. Then, when there’s solid evidence to support a sighting, they admit it could be an escaped pet. And finally, when they have no way out, they admit cougars are back, albeit in the form of wayward travelers pushed out of the Wild West. But how long before some of these dispersers stake their claims here, a stage I suspect we’re not far from. Then there’ll be vindication for all the folks who have seen one and had the guts to report it only to be told in a condescending manner that they’d seen a ghost.

When you chase a story like this as long as I have, there are always salient comments made that stick with you. Such a remark was made by a wildlife expert to me in the past 15 years. I can’t recall when or who, but it was definitely a state or federal wildlife official who admitted cougars had repopulated remote Great Lakes forest in Michigan. When I suggested to him that if they could get Michigan, there was no reason why a spillover population wouldn’t soon take root in New England, he didn’t agree, said there were far too many highways and other manmade obstacles in their way.

“Look at a map and you’ll see what I mean,” he told me.

Well, I did study a couple multi-fold road maps, double-checked and came away totally unconvinced.


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