18 Jun
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The Myth of the Lion: Cougars are gone and they’re not coming back

The last mountain lion shot in Rhode Island resides in a Harvard museum of natural history.

By Hugh Markey

On a sunny spring day, I met a middle aged couple along the trail of a state land management area. He was tall and lanky, gray-bearded and sporting a keffiyeh. She was short, plump and apple cheeked. Both wore binoculars with a harness that identified them as serious birders. We were all there to see the warbler migration, and we struck up a conversation. We touched on the beautiful weather, and the new arrivals we’d seen. The conversation moved on to mammals and reptiles that would be making their first appearance of the season. Of spotted turtles and skunks. Of pine warblers and mountain lions.

“Wait – what? Did you just say mountain lions?” I asked. They both nodded, smiling.

“Oh sure,” he said. “Well, not here necessarily, but they’re out there. I have a friend who’s seen tracks in his yard.” His companion nodded and smiled.

I wanted to be tactful, but I couldn’t let this one go. “Wouldn’t that kind of information be in the news? Has USFW confirmed this?”

“Fish and Wildlife don’t want people to know about them,” he said. “People would start to freak out.”

After that, I excused myself on the premise of continuing my birding. Yet the man’s statements kept rolling around inside my head. He was dead certain that there were plenty of mountain lions in Rhode Island. And he was equally certain that there was a concerted effort to keep the public in the dark about them. Over the years, I’ve heard a number of similar claims regarding big cat sightings, always from otherwise average seeming people. Could this be true? And could there really be an undercover operation to spare the general public the terror?

A cat by any other name

Mountain lion. Catamount. Cougar. Puma. Wildcat. Even Indian devil and mountain screamer. All names for the same big cat. These are large, muscled felines, some weighing nearly 150 pounds and as much as nine feet from nose to tail. Although they will eat small game like rabbits and beavers, their preferred dinner in Eastern North America is the white tailed deer. Females will breed about every two or three years, typically producing two to three kittens which they shelter in a cave. The kittens will stay with their mother for a year or two before they’re off on their own, typically staying close to their birth territory.

Various scientists have said that pumas need two things to survive: deer and large tracts of contiguous (connected) forest. By one estimation, a population of 15 – 20 pumas needs roughly four to eight hundred square miles of forest with a moderate deer population in order to exist. Adult pumas will eat a deer per week; more, if the female is feeding kittens.

According to a five year review written by Mark McCollough, endangered species biologist for US Fish and Wildlife (USFW) for the Northeast Region, mountain lions were present throughout North America, Central and South America when the Europeans arrived. It’s been downhill for them ever since.

The tag from the 1814 addition to the collection.

Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?

There’s a catalogue in the vaults of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. It’s long and heavy, this 1946 record book of acquisitions by the museum. Open it to July, and there is a tidy entry about “Felis couguar; from Rhode Island; West Greenwich.” Under a heading of “When Collected”, it reads “1847 – 48”. It was purchased by the museum nearly 100 years after it was “collected” (in this case, read: shot), and the skin and skull are still there. The entry, in tidy fountain pen, would be hardly noticeable among the hundreds listed in this volume, save for one fact: this particular Felis couguar is the remains of the last cougar shot in Rhode Island. The last of its kind in the state. Other New England states likely could tell similar stories from that time period.

From the landing of the first European immigrants, the relationship between humans and mountain lions has been fraught. “There wasn’t a high density population of them even back then,” McCollough says. “Pumas were regarded as dangerous to both humans and most certainly to livestock. There are records of what was known as a circle hunt. There would be hundreds of people gathered together in a large circle and they would work their way inward, shooting everything: wolves, cougars, bears, but even deer as well.” The destruction was perhaps a reflection of the biblical stories that claimed God gave man dominion over all the earth. Unlike Native Americans, who believed in an interconnectedness of living beings, Europeans felt that it was part of their divine right to subdue the earth, and also that the bounty of the new world was limitless. Extirpation was the least of their concerns, and governments were willing to pay for the process.

Massachusetts, according to the McCollough report, offered a 40-shilling reward for pumas in 1742. By 1753, officials sweetened the pot by boosting the reward to four pounds. There’s no record of the reasons behind the bump, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine the increasing population had a lot to do with it. In Connecticut, bounties were paid on pumas from 1694 – 1769. By the mid 1800’s, surveys throughout New England indicated that puma sightings had essentially become a thing of the past. Paul Rego, wildlife biologist with Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), says “In our region, extirpation probably came about through a combination of deforestation and unregulated exploitation of wildlife in general. The deer population (major part of the puma’s diet) was nearly eliminated for quite some time.”

As populations grew in the late 18th and early 19th century, vast amounts of forest land was cleared. The wood went to things such as ship building, and the cleared land went to farms. With woods gone and deer eliminated, the result was inevitable. Even surveys from the mid 1800’s in the northeast already indicated that mountain lions were a rare sight. By 1929, a book called Lives of Game Animals declared the species was extinct in the East: “In the eastern States (sic), [the puma] is virtually extinct. If there is a pair of cougars in the Green Mountains of Vermont, now, it is the highest possible number. If there are six pairs in the mountains between the Catskills and Georgia, I should be agreeably surprised.”

Today, every state in the Northeast reports the puma as extirpated. A look at New England states indicates that most no longer have the conditions needed to support animals of that size. Only Maine and Vermont list even the possibility of suitable habitat. None report the existence of a native population. For all intents and purposes, Puma concolor couguar has slipped into memory.

At over 200 years old, the taxidermied lion is a bit the worse for wear.

The game changer that wasn’t
On a very early Sunday morning in June 2011, there was a moment when it looked like the science of puma surveys would turn on its head. A white Hyundai Tucson sped along Route 15 in Milford, CT at about one in the morning. Suddenly, something big moved across the road. The SUV was moving too fast to stop in time, and the figure was struck and killed. Police were called in. The driver was uninjured, and if this were an ordinary vehicle/animal crash, that would have been the end of it. But this was no ordinary case of a deer wandering around in the middle of the night. No, the animal “victim” in this case was a full grown, 140-pound mountain lion.

For a time, this caused quite a stir. Claims of big cat sightings had been reported throughout the New England region for well over a century, but rarely if ever with conclusive evidence. Now here was one in the (slightly damaged) flesh. Initial observations showed no signs of it ever having been captured; there were no microchips, nor was it declawed or neutered, all common occurrences in captive cats. Could it be that this was concrete proof that there was a native mountain lion population in Connecticut?

Sadly, the answer was no. It wasn’t long before DEEP announced the result of its DNA testing, which concluded that the lion killed on that Saturday night had wandered 1500 miles from its home in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Samples of scat (droppings), blood, and hair samples discovered while snow tracking in the Midwest matched that of the Connecticut lion. The extraordinary journey shattered the previous record of distanced traveled by a mountain lion by nearly double. As amazing as that fact was, it was also further proof that there was no established lion population anywhere near the area.

“But I swear…” Hoaxes, hearsay, and mistaken identity

The mountain lion killing was one of the few times that concrete evidence was found of even the presence of mountain lions, let alone a native population. Still, roughly 170 years after New England declared the animals extirpated, wildlife biologists receive calls from people who swear they’ve seen them. Charlie Brown, wildlife biologist with Rhode Island’s USFW, says he gets several every year. “People swear that (their sighting) could be nothing but a mountain lion. I don’t know what their motivations are, other than they firmly believe it was a mountain lion, and they don’t want to take no for an answer.”

Paul Rego says that DEEP receives notice of about a hundred alleged sightings a year. The problem is, none has panned out. “People will describe a cat with a long tail. There will be reports of eye witnesses, rather than a photo or video. Or there will be a fleeting glimpse, such as an animal running across a road and into the woods.” None of these add up to a confirmed sighting. So why are so many seemingly average people convinced that they have seen a mountain lion? The five year review lists some possibilities.

One is the psychological phenomenon known as visual closure. Scientists have documented that, when faced with an incomplete picture of an object, humans subconsciously use inference to “close” the gaps in identifying them. Mark McCollough describes it this way: “When we see something and we’re not completely sure what it was, we have a tendency to want to pigeonhole the item, rather than just say ‘I don’t know.’ We have this thing in our brains that makes us want to bring closure to identifications. Birders do it when they glimpse a bird. I think the same has to go with cougar sightings.” Given just a portion of a picture, the brain automatically fills in the missing pieces with information that amounts to guesswork. A useful habit, but one that can result in mistaken identity if the brain fills in the wrong information.

Brown describes his encounters with alleged cougar sightings: “I have seen trail cam shots of house cats, even to the point where you can see that it’s wearing a collar. Sometimes people want to believe that pictures of bobcat kittens (yes, bobcats do inhabit much of New England) are actually mountain lion kittens. I haven’t seen anything in the way of a track or other hard evidence. Sometimes we’ll get called out to see footprints in the snow, but the prints are not that of a lion.” The internet, as it seems to be in much of life, is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to identifying mountain lions. “Stuff gets pushed around the internet,” Charlie Brown says. “Someone will say, ‘Oh, my friend took this picture in Cumberland (RI),’ and a quick Google search will reveal that the picture was taken in a totally different place. I recall one picture that someone said was shot in Plainfield, CT, and you could see snow-capped mountains in the background.”

All three biologists agree that it’s often difficult to persuade people that what they’ve seen is something other than a mountain lion. “Obviously, when people believe that they’ve seen them, but the sightings not being verified by wildlife agencies, then in your heart of hearts you still believe you’ve seen them, even without the corroborating evidence,” says Rego. “It’s like a stalemate.”

Errors or black ops?

“When I wrote the cougar paper, I became intimately aware of the belief by some people that there’s a government conspiracy to hide these reports,” said McCollough. “If you look at the state agencies, they’ve likely received thousands of reports over the last 10-15 years. So people will say, well, if you have had thousands of reports, or tens of thousands of reports, that means that they have to be here. And there are some individuals who have made this a focus in their lives and they would have maps and put x’s on these maps, and when they see a group of x’s together, that must mean there’s a cougar population here.

“Then there are those pseudoscientists who conduct conferences and get together, and one person would give a report from Maine, and put the maps up with the red x’s, and that must mean the cougars are here. Someone from Vermont would do the same thing. There was this feeling that the government was ignoring these claims by the public.”

Brown says he, too, hears plenty of conspiracy rumors. “People have actually claimed to have secretly seen Department of Environmental Management (DEM) trucks come up, open the back, and dump cougars in the woods. People just have these suspicions, and I don’t know what motivates them. They won’t say they’ve seen it directly; they always quote someone else and say they’ve heard from someone else that this happened.”

Sometimes the agency simply doesn’t have the personnel to investigate the claims. “We’re so busy that we can’t go out the door every time someone says they’ve seen a cougar,” said McCollough. “And there’s good reasons for that, as we documented in this review. There were two biologists in the 1980’s who were paid to drop everything and run out and check what the people saw. They each came to the same conclusion after several years that 90-95% could be written off right off the bat. People see black bears, fisher cats that run quickly across the road. Here in Maine, some people misidentify Canada lynx for cougars, Labrador retrievers, even house cats. We have documentation where all these species have been confused with cougars. I’ve had 100 – 200 calls like this during my 35-year career. If I feel there’s a good chance we can collect some evidence, especially when there’s snow on the ground, I’ll go and check it out. It takes me a half or full day that I have to justify to my supervisor. But each time, it’s typically been a coyote or a fox, or maybe a bobcat, or the tracks end up being dog tracks. It’s not the best use of taxpayer dollars to do that activity.

“On the other hand, there are occasionally cougars seen, but we have concluded that these are either cougars dispersing from the west (and not establishing a population here) or released or escaped pets. (New England states do not allow cougars to be kept as pets or in private collections.) We have found no evidence that somehow a population of true Eastern cougar has survived.”

Reality check

Tinfoil hat conspiracy theories aside, there are some very good reasons to believe the scientists over the conspiracists. The same technology that brought about the dubious reliability of the internet has given nearly everyone the perfect cougar prover: the cell phone. “Almost every person has a phone with a camera,” said Rego. “Beyond that, there are thousands and thousands of trail cameras put out there, and they’re in perhaps the best habitat for mountain lions, since they’re intended to find deer. Yet with all that coverage, there are still no photos.

“In Connecticut as well as in Rhode Island, there are so many people who spend time outdoors. We don’t have empty wilderness in the classic sense. Yet with all those people outdoors, no one has found any tracks. Beyond that, even if the mountain lions themselves were in the most remote parts of the state, they would occasionally leave tracks by houses and in back yards, and occasionally wander into the city. We certainly have other animals that can be of concern to people, but mountain lions are not among them.”

Charlie Brown agrees. “You have to look at the big picture of where we are in the world. Some people make the leap that because they eat deer, and we have deer here in Rhode Island, then we must have mountain lions. They’re cryptic, but they do leave evidence behind. Think about how many people are wandering around at all hours of the day and night. We get bobcats, coyotes, and bears routinely, and with everyone carrying a cell phone, we have no evidence of cougars.”

What’s real vs. what’s wishful?

In researching this story, finding web sites that pushed junk science about cougars was unavoidable. What can be frustrating is that some sites are visually appealing, regularly updated, but still completely wrong. One of the few reliable sites that publishes accurate information about cougar sightings is Cougar Network (www.cougarnet.org ). A call to the local USFW office or state environmental protection agency can also result in updated information.

So, when faced with all these facts, why would my fellow birders on the trail insist that there were cougars just waiting to be discovered? The review cites an article that provides perhaps the best reasoning: “The idea (of pumas being present) is incredibly seductive – the notion that these gentle mountains, long settled and so badly misused by people for centuries, could have reclaimed such a potent symbol of wilderness as the mountain lion. Sometimes, I think we need to believe such things even when the evidence (or its absence) suggest we are deluding ourselves. Deep down in our over civilized hearts, we need the world to be bigger, and more mysterious, and more exciting than it appears to be in the cold light of day – especially in this age, when the planet shrinks daily and no place seems truly remote or unknown. We’re unwilling to accept that there isn’t more to the world than what we can see.”

Another tag from the lion.

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