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Robert Miller: Eastern cougars are extinct — or are they?

March 26, 2018

The eastern cougar is a gone cat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally declared it extinct in January. This was no surprise. The last time anyone saw one was in New Brunswick in 1938.

But there are these big cats people keep seeing.

Mike Bird of New Milford saw one crossing Hardscrabble Road in 2016. He watched it walk for about 40 yards before it ducked into the woods.

“A cat crossed from the left to the right,” Bird said. “I thought, ‘It’s too big to be a bobcat.’ I could see its big tail.”

Bird told his story last week at the John Pettibone Community Center in New Milford, after a talk by Chris Spatz, the president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation.

The foundation is dedicated to education and habitat preservation, the better to bring the eastern cougar’s cousin — the western cougar — to the East Coast, adding what the foundation believes is a badly-needed predator to our ecosystem.

Spatz told Bird and others with big cat stories he hoped they saw what they thought they saw.

“Then we could talk about protection rather than reintroduction,” Spatz said.

But there is a problem. Other than the one, famous cougar that wandered from South Dakota to Connecticut’s Gold Coast before being killed by a car on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in June 2011, there’s been no substantiated modern evidence of a cougar — aka a mountain lion, a puma, a catamount — in the state.

That means no other roadkill. No photographs or videos. No paw prints. No cougar scat. No cougar-killed deer carcass.

It isn’t just Connecticut. Spatz and his other cougar-obsessed cohorts have combed through New York and New Jersey, chasing down reported sightings. They’ve set up motion-activated field cameras in the woods and shot thousands of hours of film. They’ve doused the ground near the cameras with Obsession for Men, a scent animals find irresistible.

And the results?

“We’ve seen porcupine, fisher, gray fox, turkeys, red fox, coyote, black bear,” he said.

But no cougars. Ever.

Spatz said if they are here, they should not be that hard to find.

“There are about 150 Florida panthers,” he said. “With that number, they get 25 road kills a year.”

For all those reasons, Jenny Dickson, supervising wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, agrees there is no convincing proof of any cougars in Connecticut, except for that one documented wanderer.

“We’d be seeing roadkill. We’ve not seen them in all these many years,” she said.

Paul Elconin, director of land conservation at Weantinoge Heritage Trust, said that in all the time he and his staff have spent on the trust’s 10,000 acres of protected land in Litchfield County, no one has seen a cougar.

But he’s heard stories.

“I know people who say they’ve seen something,” he said.

What some people do mistakenly ID as cougars may be atypical bobcats, longer-tailed and pale.

“Ninety-nine percent of bobcats don’t look like cougars,” Dickson said. “But there is that 1 percent.”

And yet….

In New Canaan in January, there was a sighting of what looked to be a cougar near the Merritt Parkway. Allyson Halm, the town’s animal control officer, reported it to DEEP.

“It crossed a lighted street where there was good vision,” Halm said. “The person who reported it was credible.”

If the eastern cougar is gone, and the western cougar — wandering out of the Dakotas into the Great Lake states — hasn’t arrived here, why advocate for its return?

For one thing, they used to be here before people exterminated them.

For another, they are very good at killing and eating white-tailed deer. One way of controlling the overpopulation of deer in the east, and the damage those deer do to the ecosystem, is to have a predator that specializes in preying on them, Spatz said.

Dickson, the DEEP biologist, however, invokes the Law of Unintended Consequences to question whether this is such a good idea.

“It’s easy to romanticize it. But we’re talking about an ecosystem that has evolved without them,” she said of a countryside that now is home to a lot of humans. “If you change it by reintroducing a top-tier predator, what will happen?”

So for now — with that one exception — this is how things stand.

“Look at the megafauna we have now,” Elconin, of Weantinoge, said. “We have black bears, coyotes, bobcats. And ghost mountain lions.”

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com