A specter is haunting the eastern woodlands. From the Smokies to the Maritimes, rumors of catamounts persist and accumulate, along with a small but growing body of tangible field evidence that a few cougars, at least, have made a reappearance here. This second largest New World feline is part of our wilderness mythology, a symbol of our vanished frontier and emblem of redemption for our recovering woodlands. Even the keen of the catamount is legendary; modern cougars are remarkably non-vocal and some researchers speculate that those cats that once did scream -probably females in heat - were the first to be taken by the settlers' powder and ball.
The mountain lion had one of the largest historic ranges of any mammal, stretching throughout the Americas from the boreal Canada to Patagonia, and from coast to coast across the United States. The eastern cougar (felis concolor cougar) was driven from the East by declining forest habitat, the near loss of the White-tailed deer, and by intensive hunting. It was last recorded in Massachusetts in 1858, was extirpated from New York by 1908, and is now officially represented only by the remnant Florida Panther subspecies, federally listed as endangered since 1973.
There are perhaps as many as 50,000 cougars west of the Mississippi that do not enjoy such protection, and they appear to be expanding further east. The Cougar Network, a nonprofit conservation organization that has conducted comprehensive research on the big cat's distribution in North America for over three years, documents evidence of movement of western cougars into parts of the Midwest, including numerous confirmed sitings in Nebraska and even from Illinois.
From a wildlife agency perspective, it is highly improbable that there are established, breeding populations of the eastern subspecies of mountain lion outside of Florida. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation says the following on its Eastern Cougar Fact Sheet:
We in New York receive a few reports of cougar sightings each year from throughout the state. In many instances it is a case of mistaken identity. Other cats, fishers or dogs are the animals probably seen. Once in a great while a real cougar is sighted. Based on our experiences, it is safe to assume that these animals have been intentionally or unintentionally released by people. Contrary to some peoples beliefs, they are not part of a native, self sustaining population. Cougars are not ghosts. They leave tracks which would be regularly seen in any area frequented by them. If there were enough cougars for a population, there would be many sets of tracks readily available for people to see throughout the year.
Others disagree. It took coyotes more than 40 years to establish viable populations in New York after they first appeared the state in the 1920s. Now they are widespread and well established everywhere except on Long Island, and even that may not be completely beyond their grasp: a coyote turned up a couple of years ago in Central Park! The eastern Coyote is also on Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts, and to do that involved some combination of trotting over the Bourne or Sagamore bridges, hopping a ferry, or making a cold swim in fast water. Given time and enough connected habitat, an expanding western mountain lion population should find sufficient deep woods and an abundance of white-tailed deer up and down the Appalachians. Whether we can tolerate the presence of a top predator in the densely populated East is a far different matter and likely to be the ultimate limiting factor in their recolonization.
I have heard anecdotal first-hand accounts of catamount sitings from Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut to the Taconic State Parkway in Columbia County, New York. People I know to be sane and informed naturalists have spoken with complete conviction of their encounters with big cats in western Massachusetts and northwest Connecticut. Reports from even more populous regions of New England periodically surface, like the persistent sitings of a big cat in Beverly, MA north of Boston a couple of years ago. A good friend and excellent field biologist found a deer carcass that had been killed by bites to the back of the neck, dragged and partially buried: classic lion behavior. We both saw large claw sharpening marks high on the side of a tree in that same vicinity: big bobcat, or lion?
Something very primal and embedded in my psyche wants to believe that the eastern wilderness is large enough even for this wide ranging and lamented lost carnivore. Yet I know how much my desire to see a mountain lion colors my vision. Every tawny blur crossing the road in the distance screams the wished-for "lion" before my eyes register "deer" or "coyote" or "bobcat" or "dog". And if it is true that a population of mountain lions from whatever source - feral released captives or westerners moving East- does reestablish in parts of its historic eastern range, will we suffer them to remain?
The reintroduction of the gray wolf in the Northwest has been phenomenally successful - 1,000 animals in numerous reproducing packs, half of these in Idaho alone - but so rapid that the backlash from ranchers and residents in wolf country has been intense. We already have a robust and expanding black bear population in Eastern New York and southern New England, growing at a faster rate than available wildlife management tools can moderate, and it seems likely that their numbers will exceed our tolerance threshold before they hit their ecological limits. In 2002 a black bear tragically killed a 5 month old girl at a campground in Fallsburg, NY, about 90 miles from New York City. It will not matter that this was an extraordinarily rare occurrence, or that a vastly larger number of people will die as a result of collisions with deer than will ever encounter mountain lions. What makes us fear for our children, and to a lesser degree for our livelihoods, will dictate how we respond to carnivores in our backyards.
I spent nearly four years in remote parts of southern Africa, in areas where humans were not the undisputed top of the food chain. I walked unarmed through dense bush where breeding herds of elephants had recently passed, and heard stories of three, fatal human encounters with elephants in that area during the previous decade that were fresh in the minds of the residents. I have seen Ju/'hoansi bushmen, the so-called "harmless people" of the Kalahari, light the veld on fire after spying a venomous snake near their settlements. Leopards preying on livestock can mean the difference between survival and starvation for those trying to subsist in non-equilibrium environments. For some rural Africans, in ways reminiscent to narcotics dealing in other communities, poaching became one of the few perceived ways to break the cycle of poverty.
The conflict between people and wildlife in rural Africa was, if anything, more acute than even in the western United States. Here in New England, rural livelihoods affected by the deprecations of large carnivores are a small percentage of the regional economy and farmers are already adjusting their husbandry practices to account for predation from coyotes and the occasional bear. Yet those very Africans most affected by competition for shared resources with wildlife also began to embrace conservation as a means of additional security and livelihood diversification.
I have written about Community-based Conservation success in Namibia, and it offers hope that conservation threats can become opportunities. We in the Litchfield Hills, and wherever our large predators are making a comeback, might find there is much to emulate in the Namibian example of local people making informed management decisions, becoming active stewards as well as direct beneficiaries of wildlife conservation. Let me be clear; I do not advocate that we simply abandon federal oversight, wash our hands like Pontius Pilate and let the states manage our natural resources as they see fit. Too much has been squandered, pandered, and sacrificed with that approach. But I continue to believe that those who live closest to the resources need to be directly involved in making informed conservation decisions, and are unlikely to change their behaviors or throw their support behind policies imposed from outside. That old "taxation without representation" thorn still sits uncomfortably under the American saddle.
And the catamounts that roam our restless dreams? Perhaps we will have to accept an eastern wilderness without cougars, just as our skies no longer darken with the birds of passage, the heath hen no longer drums in our sand plains, and salmon may one day may fail for the last time to return the wide Connecticut. Are they our own Lord God Bird, holding out undetected like the ivory bill, waiting in the wings only to to step back on stage once more? For now, I believe the occassional sitings will continue to accumulate, settling like chestnut leaves from a long vanished canopy, until at some time in the not too distant future the question will no longer be "are they here", but "how can they remain with us?"