Monday, September 21, 2009

New Hampshire's Mountain Lion Mystery

by Peg Rosen
Images Courtesy Squam Lakes Natural Science Center

Imagine yourself driving a New Hampshire road at night, the winding pavement illuminated by the splay of the headlights. Suddenly, at the outer edges of your vision you glimpse an animal by the roadside, large and light in color with a long tail You stop to try and get a good look, but it’s gone. “I just saw a mountain lion!” you exclaim to yourself. But mountain lions disappeared from the forests and fields of New Hampshire long ago. Or did they? Do you believe your eyes? Or not?

You wouldn’t be alone in wondering. Numerous New Hampshire residents have encountered the mountain lion mystery Like all good mysteries, trying to discover whether mountain lions exist today in New Hampshire opens the door to a myriad of additional unanswered questions, intriguing clues and divided debate.

The Eastern Cougar (mountain lion), one of 15 subspecies of cougar living in North America, was native to our area at the time of settlement. Also called puma, cougar, catamount and panther, the eastern cougar roamed the landscape preying primarily on deer for food. Elusive and not often seen even in colonial times, its existence was threatened by land clearing for agriculture and logging. The deforestation resulted in habitat changes affecting the availability of prey and cover for protection. In addition, fearful pioneers hunted mountain lions relentlessly, adding to their decline. By the late 1800‚s, the cougar population had been hunted and displaced out of existence east of the Mississippi.

However, throughout the many years since the large, tawny cat was officially declared extirpated from the region, reports continued to trickle in from individuals claiming to have seen one. Today, apparent sightings occur regularly.. According to Mark Ellingwood, a wildlife biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, several dozen sightings are reported each year in New Hampshire. In efforts to validate what may be credible reports, Fish and Game Department biologists ask observers the Who, Where, When and What of the incident and look for patterns of sightings, such as flurries or clusters of reports in a particular area. In order to confirm any sighting, the Department’s “greatest focus is on the existence of hard evidence, such as photos or videos, tracks, scat, hair samples”. On the official record to date, there has not been any piece of hard evidence available that can positively confirm a single sighting. But those who claim to have seen one of the big cats are often quite passionate about their belief in what they saw or found. For those who believe that the cougars have returned, each new sighting and testimony is a validation of that belief.

John Harrigan, a farmer and writer in Colebrook, has been keeping track of “sighting stories” since approximately 1978 and states that “the table is set” for these animals, with deer in abundance and the cougar’s willingness to feed on everything from mice to deer to young moose. With plenty of prey and still adequate forest cover, “there is no reason why there couldn”t be a viable cougar population in New Hampshire.” He applies his own version of questioning to the reports, designed to winnow out the least reliable: How far away was the viewer? What were the lighting weather, and forest cover conditions? How long was the animal in view? Mr. Harrigan declares that “although I am inherently skeptical, there is no doubt we have 2 or 3 cats, even denning females.” His conviction about the presence of reproducing cougars comes partly from several significant sighting reports that occurred in 1988-89 in broad daylight during summer months. He feels these indicate a denning female was taking chances, desperate to feed her young. Although Mr. Harrigan is one of the more vocal advocates of the mountain lion’s presence, there appear to be plenty of other proponents of the idea, as evidenced by the steady stream of reported sightings..

The opposing argument, however, can be quite persuasive when based on the premise that sightings are suspect unless validated by hard physical evidence. Dave Erler, Senior Naturalist at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness, New Hampshire, acknowledges that, although he would very much like to see the mountain lion return to this part of the country where it was an inhabitant before any of us, there is a decided lack of confirming evidence, especially tracks. “An animal that big and heavy couldn’t possibly travel through the snow in New Hampshire and not leave tracks.” Mr. Ellingwood also says that if they were here, we would have something more definitive by now to solve the mystery. “In talking with other biologists in Florida where they have confirmed the presence of the Florida Panther, we‚ve learned that wherever there are cougars, there is no lack of evidence.”

Mr. Harrigan refutes the lack of evidence theory with reasons for the missing elements of proof, explaining that scat, tracks, bits of hair and even deer carcass from a kill will not last long unless an effort is made by the finder to preserve them effectively. Some who hold the view that the cougar is extinct here argue that a cat and car collision would otherwise have occurred by now. But could a case for their presence be made on the idea that such a small number of cats might be able to avoid that type of human contact? What about the compelling stories of sightings told by, according to Harrigan, “keen individuals who have no reason to make something like that up”? Mark Ellingwood concedes that “the people registering reports are reasonable individuals who, even though we (Fish and Game) try to remain objective and respectful of their claim, seem perplexed when we tell them their evidence is not definitive enough for confirmation”.

If the reported sightings haven’t been substantiated by physical evidence and cougars aren’t here, what are people seeing that looks like a mountain lion? Some sightings have been determined to be a matter of mistaken identity, the creature later identified as a bobcat, housecat, or other animal. But in circumstances with good viewing conditions, it would seem difficult to not recognize the distinctive size, shape, color and cat-like movements of a mountain lion

And if the great cats are indeed back, where did they come from? Are they holdouts from the original natives who have remained in Maine or the Canadian Maritime Provinces and have migrated back to our state? Although a mountain lion’s territory range can be vast and migration of some western cougars seem to have occurred in the Midwest based on confirmed sightings there, Ellingwood states that “even though it’s not impossible, the dispersal distances seem too great„ to make migration a likely scenario”, while Harrigan observes that “animals don’t pay attention to borders” and seemingly credible sightings in eastern Canada put the mountain lion in range of our state. Or perhaps the sightings are of escaped or released exotic pets. Could a cougar kept in captivity make it‚s way as a wild creature and manage to survive? Some say “yes”, some say “no”. Cougar strength, agility and power is certainly evident in the physical appearance of the two captive mountain lions at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. Brought to the Center from Montana as orphaned two-week-old cubs, they could not have survived without their mother. But, now, as full-grown adults, they seem to possess the physical qualities needed to hunt in our wilderness. But would they know how or be able to learn quickly enough? Who can say if a sighting is of a native Eastern Cougar, an escaped cousin from captivity, or nothing related to a cougar at all?

As long as there are unconfirmed sightings, there will be a mountain lion mystery. “Are there mountain lions in New Hampshire?” Mr. Erler has created categories for the possible responses: Category #1. “Don't know, don't care”, Category #2 “Yep, they’re here”, Category #3. “Nope, they're not here”, and Category #4. “Not sure - wish I could believe they were, but not enough proof to support the notion”.

In what category would you place yourself?

I Believe T-Shirt from Moosewood Communications

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