MEMS hosting presentation on cougars
MANCHESTER — At Manchester Elementary-Middle School, the cougar has long been the school mascot. It's a fitting choice, given that it's an apex predator known for its agility, speed, strength and intelligence.
So it's fitting that MEMS is hosting a talk given by an expert on how these fascinating animals are returning to the eastern United States, years after they were long presumed to have vanished from this part of the country.
Sue Morse of Keeping Track, a Vermont organization dedicated to monitoring wildlife so it can be protected, will present "The Cougar Returns to the East" on Wednesday, Sept. 26 from 6:30 p.m. at the MEMS gym. The program is being presented by Manchester Community Library and the school.
Morse will offer an illustrated introduction to cougar biology and ecology in the broad diversity of habitats where she has studied them, from Alberta to the Arizona/Mexico border. She will talk about the latest confirmations of cougars in the east, including the recently documented suitability of a substantial amount of wild habitats from Manitoba to Louisiana and Maine to Georgia.
For years, cougar sightings in the Eastern U.S. were dismissed. The animal, once common in the eastern U.S, was systematically hunted and trapped, and the eastern cougar was declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year.
But Morse says the research shows the "eastern" and "western" cougar are not cousins — they're one and the same. And Eastern states need to know how to treat them when they repopulate our region, she says.
Panthers, pumas, mountain lions and catamounts are not different animals, Morse says — just different names for the same big cat.
"All cougars north of Nicaragua are the same animal," she said. "Really what the 'eastern cougar' was and could be again is the expansion of a remnant population recolonizing their former habitat."
The "unfortunate outcome" of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's de-listing of the cougar, Morse said, is that it puts the burden on protecting returning cougar populations and conserving their habitat on state wildlife management agencies once they re-establish a breeding population, rather than a cohesive regional or national strategy.
"Many of us are concerned about the implications of declaring the eastern cougar extinct," she said. "Really, what the eastern cougar was and could be again is the expansion of a remnant population of cougars recolonizing their former habitat."
What excites Morse is that these animals are on their way back east.
Years of sightings and scientific evidence already suggest cougars have found their way east to open territory. In 2011 a cougar wandered an estimated 1,500 miles from the Midwest to Milford, Conn., where it was struck and killed on a highway. According to news reports, tests on the animal showed it was wild, rather than escaped from a zoo or captivity, and that its DNA matched that of the he mountain lion population in the Black Hills region of South Dakota.
"What I find most exciting and most compelling really as a biologist is potentially there are female colonizers that make the same kind of long distance journey, and that's what makes the world go around," Morse said. "The minute a female makes a long journey and takes up residence, any male passing through is going to stay. The reason why we're seeing movement and not really building breeding populations yet is we need females to get here."
One of the reasons the cougar was hunted to extinction in the east was the threat it posed to livestock. But Morse says that's on humans for two reasons.
"When we really had problems with [livestock predation] in the American West two things had happened," she said. "One, we killed off all the native game. And two, we really weren't doing a good job of taking care of our livestock."
"Speaking to my own personal experience I've raised sheep here in northwestern Vermont for almost 30 years and I never had an incident with coyotes or bobcats or bears or anything, even though I'm surrounded by [those animals]," she said. "Why? I had very good fence that packs an electric wallop, and I had a dog."
The program is sponsored by Equinox Preservation Trust, Roberta and Russell Housman Charitable Foundation, and Sustainable Design. Questions can be directed to Cindy Waters of the Manchester Community Library at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out their website at www.mclvt.org.
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