Upcoming talk in Concord: Is New England home to mountain lions?
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)
This June 2011 photo released Tuesday, July 26, 2011 by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection shows a worker examining a dead mountain lion at the Sessions Woods Wildlife Center in Burlington, Conn. DEEP Commissioner Daniel Esty said tests determined that the cat, which was killed when struck by a car June 11 in Milford, Conn., had traveled all the way from South Dakota. (AP Photo/Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection)
The mountain lion: myth or majestic cat roaming New England? The question has captivated residents across the region for years. The answer depends on who you ask.
State and federal wildlife officials have said there is no hard evidence to prove the big cats, also known as cougars or pumas, inhabit the Northeast, let alone New Hampshire. Others disagree.
“I personally know that to not be the fact because I have seen them up in the Kearsarge area, running across I-89 near Warner,” said Jay Haines, executive director of the Five Rivers Conservation Trust. Until that sighting seven years ago, he too had believed mountain lions didn’t call the Granite State home.
This Thursday, the topic will take center stage at the conservation group’s annual gathering at Red River Theatres in Concord. The featured speaker, Bill Betty, a Rhode Island-based mountain lion advocate who tracks reported sightings across New England, will give an hourlong presentation about the cougars’ existence in the area.
Haines is hoping the event, which is free and open to the public with registration, will keep up local interest and feed the mystery. “It’s an element that will probably never be settled,” he said.
For wildlife officials, the issue is a matter of evidence.
Each year, the state Fish and Game Department receives dozens of reported sightings of the cats, recognizable by their long tail, large build and beige coloring. To date, the department has not verified any sighting, said Patrick Tate, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist.
When the department has sent hair or scat samples for testing, all have come back negative and usually belong to raccoons, coyotes, domestic dogs or bobcats, Tate said. The photos that he has received of actual mountain lions have been lifted from the internet, something he said is surprisingly common.
“To our knowledge, there is no population,” said Mark McCollough, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If there were . . . there would be tracks, there would be trail camera photos, there would be animals being hit on the highways.”
In Florida, where the population is roughly 150 panthers, cars strike about 10 to 20 animals each year, he said.
The last record of the eastern cougar in New Hampshire dates to the mid-1800s. The predators were driven out of the region when residents converted the forest habitat into farmland and fields.
In the 1970s, the cats were put on the endangered species list. Then in 2011, after a lengthy survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife department determined the eastern mountain lions to be extinct.
However, from time to time individual cats do appear on the East Coast, McCollough said. In those cases, the evidence shows the animals have been escaped pets or cougars dispersing from the western populations.
The latter proved to be the case when a 2-year-old male mountain lion showed up in Connecticut in 2011. The 140-pound cat had walked roughly 2,000 miles from its home in the Black Hills of South Dakota before a driver hit and killed it in Milford.
“It’s very rare to happen,” Tate said. The animal was most likely in search of a home range.
Cougars predominantly live in the western part of the United States. Since New England has become reforested, it is a habitat that could support mountain lions, Tate said. “If they had a population close by, they could easily reoccupy,” he said.
Betty said the cats already have. “It doesn’t matter where they came from, they are here,” he said. “This is a reoccupation taking place because we have a tremendous number of deer.”
In Rhode Island, Betty has had several encounters with mountain lions, he said. He began to really research the cats’ presence in New England after he had a series of cougar sightings at the end of his driveway.
“It had been going on 15 years. Every three years on average we would run into them,” Betty said. “I thought they must really be here, and I started asking around.”
Six months later, the retired defense worker attended his first mountain lion conference out west, he said. He has been researching the topic and giving presentations ever since.
Wildlife officials are reluctant to acknowledge the mountain lions in New England, in part, he said, because the agencies don’t have the manpower or money to manage the population. But, he expects a shift soon.
“This is real; it is as real as you can get,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I was shaking in fear after encounters with mountain lions behind my house.”
Either way, it’s unlikely the mystery and intrigue will die down anytime soon. Each time a newspaper runs a story about the ghost cats, Tate said he sees a spike in sightings.
“The mountain lion is a very majestic animal,” Haines said. “Like the lion in Africa being the king of the jungle, the mountain lion has that similar physical presence. It just attracts attention.”
(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)