Mountain lion, cougar, puma, catamount, panther — whatever name you choose to call this extremely rare, elusive "ghost cat," so many questions remain. As it is with other wildlife, the moose for instance, repopulating is known to occur. And what was missing from our landscape for many years, now necessitates moose crossing signs along many of our highways. Why not to a lesser extent and more slowly, the mountain lion?
Many will call these big cats being seen in the Northeast "eastern cougars" for years to come, regardless of what DNA says to the contrary. One thing is sure, the mountain lion was once the most widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere and was eliminated from about two-thirds of its original range. We are to blame, as much of their demise was at the end of a rifle barrel. Fluctuations in deer populations also contributed. By 1850, they were considered rare in the eastern two-thirds of the United States. The cat was never especially common, but troublesome enough to settlers, real or imagined, for bounties to be offered. In Connecticut, for instance, as early as 1697, a bounty of 20 shillings was paid for each cougar killed.
Today, we think of these stream-lined predators with such amazement, that our brain is often fooled into thinking and believing what we saw was, indeed, a mountain lion. In his Massachusetts Wildlife Magazine article, "Mountain Lions in Massachusetts," Dr. Tom French relates, "Seeing the real thing is always possible, but a sighting of a genuine mountain lion in New England is so rare that it is the wildlife equivalent of winning a jackpot in the Mega Millions jackpot."
I personally think that is a bit of an exaggeration, but I do get his point.
He goes on to report: "Interestingly, as bobcats have become more common, the number of mountain lion reports received by MassWildlife has continued to outnumber reports of bobcats."
Even in the courtroom, witnesses may hold to a false memory as strongly as they would true one. And furthermore, Dr. French goes on to add, "People are always hopeful that what they have seen is something unusual, rather than just common and mundane."
Comments sparked by my endeavor in last week's Naturewatch to bring to the forefront some newer information on the mountain lion to readers of New England Newspapers, indicate moderate success.
Bill Betty, a national figure in the cougar controversy, who lives in Rhode Island, received an email from a friend of his in the UK, directing him to last Sunday's Naturewatch. In turn, he emailed me with links to various informational sites providing background information and up-to-date news, in addition to offering me guidance. In an article in ECO RI News, he reports that "Maurice Hornocker, the dean of mountain lion researchers, has a simple theory that explains the urban cougar phenomenon. He believes 'people attract deer' by providing food for them in the form of flowers, vegetables, fruits trees and the like, and the 'deer, in turn, attract cougars.'"
The article goes on to report on work by a number of biologists. For instance, where these big cats may come from: "Many dispersers from eastern Canada will not go very far and will end up establishing home ranges nearby, but a few of these young cats will head south and trickle into New England. For a mountain lion, the Northeast or the Adirondacks are a hop, skip and a jump from New Brunswick, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario, as opposed to the Black Hills, which are 1,800 miles away and a 22-month cat walk."
Go to: www.ecori.org/green-opinions/2015/5/5/border-jumpers to read more.
Betty says, and it immediately caught my eye from many years of arranging Natural History programs at The Berkshire Museum (now retired.), "I've given 200 PowerPoint program in eight states and in Canada and attended the last eight puma workshops in the U.S. and Canada." Perhaps he can be enticed to offer a program or two within our readership area in the not-too-distant future.
Some final words gleaned from Dr. French's article, "Fortunately, when mountain lions are present, they are not bashful about using well-worn game trails, so keep monitoring your trail cameras and help us watch for the next big cat moving through."
To report mountain lion sightings or evidence in Massachusetts, as well as information on the species, go to the MassWildlife mountain lion web page at www. Mass.gov/DFW/Mt-Lions.
And remember, killing or harming any mountain lion that does show up in the state is already unlawful.