Saturday, January 30, 2016

Have You Seen A Mountain Lion? Many Say They Have

CougarIn the photo, the mountain lion lies on its side on the shoulder of a Connecticut parkway. Tail lights shine in the distance. A Connecticut state trooper snapped the photo after a motorist had struck and killed the animal on a June night in 2011.

Wildlife biologists quickly confirmed this mountain lion was the one photographed days before in front of an elementary school in Greenwich, Connecticut, about 40 miles west. (School was cancelled.) Within months, DNA evidence revealed that this animal was the same one seen in the backyard of a retired game warden in Lake George the previous December, and tracked in Wisconsin and Minnesota in 2009 and 2010.

DNA testing also showed that the mountain lion came from the Black Hills of South Dakota, the nation’s eastern-most confirmed breeding population. This young male had walked an astonishing 1,500 miles.

This, said Vermont Fish and Wildlife fur-bearer project leader Chris Bernier, is why he takes reports of mountain lion sightings seriously. Although the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the breeding population of wild mountain lions east of the Mississippi extinct in March 2011, and biologists are confident there is no wild, breeding population in the Northeast, that doesn’t mean a mountain lion couldn’t show up in the Northeast because, well, one did.

The last known wild mountain lion in the Northeast died in Maine in 1938. The last wild mountain lion in New Hampshire may have been killed in the White Mountains in 1885. In Vermont, it was 1881. The last mountain lion bounty in New York State was paid on one killed in Hamilton County in 1894 (between 1860 and 1894, the State paid just over 150 such bounties).

Since then, there have been a handful of confirmed mountain lion sightings in the Northeast, although most have been thought to be escaped captive animals.

Cougar Sightings, 1950-2000, Wildlife Conservation Society, 2004There are also many unconfirmed sightings. Bernier gets more than 50 reports of mountain lions a year. Patrick Tate, New Hampshire Fish and Game’s fur-bearer project leader, receives about 20. There is no physical evidence for most sightings in the two states, and when there has been physical evidence, it has been at best inconclusive.

The Connecticut mountain lion left tracks, scat, fur and game camera photos in four states. Mountain lions may be stealthy, but they do leave a trace.

Sometimes physical evidence shows the sighting was of some other animal, including dogs, cats, fishers, coyotes, bears and bobcats. Mountain lion sightings in New Hampshire have increased along with the bobcat population, said Tate.

You might think that it would be easy to tell the two cat species apart. Mountain lions weigh 105 to 140 pounds and can be up to eight feet long from the nose to the tip of the tail. Bobcats top out at about 40 pounds (most are much lighter than that) and are only about three feet long. Mountain lions have long, heavy tails, while bobcats have stumpy ones. But people mistake them all the time.

“I have plenty of bobcat photos from remote cameras where it’s a sideways view of the face, the torso is turned just so, hiding the tail, and it looks like a mountain lion,” said Susan Morse, a naturalist and educator based in Huntington, Vermont, who has studied mountain lions throughout her career. “I often use those photos in my presentations to show how easy it is to confuse things.”

On a research trip to Arizona, where there is a confirmed breeding population, a biologist told Morse that 90 percent of the mountain lion sightings he receives turn out to be bobcats. “And that’s in a place where there is a known mountain lion population,” she said.

If and when another mountain lion sighting is confirmed in the Northeast, it will almost certainly be a male. Male mountain lions travel much farther than females to find a territory of their own. Morse says they are looking – or smelling, really – for a place with females, prey, and no other males. Males from known western populations have turned up in Minnesota, Missouri, Louisiana, and elsewhere. Morse is confident that there are other male mountain lions wandering in the East.

But a breeding population requires females, and Morse is not optimistic that female mountain lions will make it into to the East on their own, both because they tend not to travel as far as males, and because of intense hunting pressure.

“People want to see them, because they want to believe that they live in this rural, wild place,” says Bernier. For now, however, we’ll have to accept that these residents of the wild west are as rare in our own neighborhoods as true wilderness.

Madeline Bodine is a writer living in Andover, Vermont. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation:


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22 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    I live in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where there are unconfirmed sightings, sometimes of what people call black panthers. The few photographs are either inconclusive, show a bobcat, or rather large domestic cats. We do have populations of feral domestic cats, I even have a black one on my property.

    According to authorities, there have been no known instances of a black-phase mountain lion (black panther), a phenomena which does occur in leopards and jaguars. A widely circulated photo of a so-called black panther supposedly taken somewhere in North America, turned out to be one of a black-phase leopard actually taken in South Africa.

    Bigfoot, anyone?

  2. Bob Bender says:

    In the late 60s while camping on our land near Vermontville, a cougar circled our campsite vocalizing in a very unsettling way. This continued for 20-30 minutes while we cowered. Ill admit it..The next morning we found the easily measured and identified tracks. Absolutely no doubt.

  3. Arthur F Morrison Jr says:

    I live in Mayfield,NY . In the last 10 – 15 yrs. I have heard of at least 3 lion seen in the area around me with-in say 50 miles.

  4. Tim-Brunswick says:

    Well by golly it’s the latest, greatest Mountain Lion article. I’m sure the next “Bring back the Wolves” article is just around the corner……..

    Be careful what you wish for Folks and try reading “The Beast in the Garden” by David Baron……….these critters eat your pets first and eventually people.

    • AG says:

      Tim – that’s a really really tried diatribe that they eat people. Go look at California where there are many living right next to MILLIONS of people in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. In both places you are more likely to die of food poisoning, car accidents, murder, heart attacks, drowning and on and on and on. It’s really ridiculous.
      Now it is true that pets do get eaten… But if you properly secure your pet – that doesn’t happen. It’s really not that complicated.

      Our ecology is out of whack. Aside from the fact we use too many chemicals – we lack apex predators. You can try to argue it any which way – but it is absolutely true. Humans with guns do not do the same job as an apex animal predator.
      How is it that Europe has allowed their apex predators to expand greatly (once they realized the errors of their ways) on a continent that is much more densely populated than this country????

      • Boreas says:


        I agree. I would be much more afraid of bring killed by a human than any animal. I have been attacked by more pets than wild animals. However I do tend to pucker a bit when in grizzly country…

    • Paul says:

      Even in places like the Colorado front-range where people have pushed hard into Mt. Lion territory incidents with people is statistically speaking nothing at all to worry about. I lived and hiked there in Mt. Lion territory for 9 years and we never even thought about it. One year we had an incident where a jogger was attacked and killed near Idaho Springs (about 20 miles west of Denver). We treated it like it was – something that basically never happens. It was the first ever death by a Mt. Lion attack in Colorado. Still is the only one.

  5. AG says:

    If they have documented one that means there have been others. They never thought that one would migrate so far before. Just like they never thought females migrate long distances at all… Now just in the last year they have tracked 4 females migrate 500 miles away. While they were amazed to see that – unfortunately 3 died. 2 were shot and one died in a trap. The 4th they don’t know.
    It also indicates that others who are not tracked do the same thing. Now a breeding population is a different story. Outside of Florida there are no breeding animals on the east coast. They certainly pass through though. If they weren’t killed so much – we’d have breeding populations. If they do come to the northeast they are most likely to come from Canada.

    • Boreas says:

      When I think of long-term changes in the ADK forest type due to climate change over the next 5-10 centuries, I think of a slightly more open and mature forest with more hardwoods mixed in. I would think this would be a better environment for cougars and and their prey. If more of the western US turns to desert and scrubland, it will likely put more pressure on cougars to move to any forested areas that may have been spared from the axe. But no one has a crystal ball.

  6. Richard Jonassen says:

    “In the photo, the mountain lion lies on its side on the shoulder of a Connecticut parkway. Tail lights shine in the distance.” Not sure what photo you’re referring to but not the one in the article.

  7. Janet Holmes says:

    We saw one while driving home on Hurricane Road in Keene, NY. It was at about 11pm, the lion was crossing the road directly in front of the car and with the headlights on the animal there was no question but that it was a mountain lion. Beautiful animal!!

  8. Bruce says:

    I wondered the same thing. The writer’s opening sentence sounds more like something taken from another publication, without quotes or attribution.

  9. Bruce says:

    I have a theory. Whitetail deer are overpopulating many states east of the Mississippi, including New York. With an abundant food supply, and significant wilderness habitat, it seems conceivable that mountain lions and even wolves could repopulate parts of the east on their own.

    As the article said, even where breeding populations exist, they are seldom seen.

    • AG says:

      Wolves get killed all the time when trying to expand by people who say “oh I thought it was a coyote”

      • Bruce says:


        I know exactly what you are saying. I’ve read a couple of articles about wolves being killed in the Adirondacks in recent years, and it makes me wonder if those coming in are undernourished and particularly lean, making them look more like coyotes, or if the coyotes in New York are more robust than usual. I can understand them being bigger if they are large breed domestic dog/coyote crosses.

        I’ve only seen one wild coyote, and it was rather lean with a face more like a fox than a dog.

  10. Paul says:

    Many say that they have seen big foot also. You can’t prove a negative so people will keep on seeing them.

    • Bruce says:

      Why Paul, how can you say such a thing.

      Just ask the folks on “Finding Bigfoot”. They will be the first to say they exist and have been seen everywhere they go. They just have a little trouble producing concrete proof. They’re looking for suckers for their show in my area as we speak.

      Cryptozoology seems to be such a big thing these days, I’m surprised colleges haven’t jumped on the bandwagon by offering a doctorate level course in it. I can hear it now, “I’m a Doctor of Cryptozoology, and my doctoral thesis is entitled “I Know They’re Out There.””

  11. Boreas says:

    I was birding once around Webb-Royce Marsh near Essex when I saw a huge cat casually walking down the dirt road toward me. When it finally turned off into the woods it was obviously a bobcat. But I still can’t believe how the grade of the road and the lighting made it look so tall.

  12. Jim DiGiacomo says:

    Check out the website, Connecticut Mountain Lion, for many recent and credible sightings.

  13. Rick Morrow says:

    I saw a white mountain lion near Cottage Grove, Oregon on August 14, 2016, in the early evening while it was still daylight, around 6:30 – 7:00pm. It was just laying in a field along highway 5 as though it didn’t have a care in the world. The traffic didn’t seem to bother it. It just laid there taking it easy. It was very beautiful and as white as a sheet of paper. I never saw a mountain lion in my life and the first time I saw one it had to be white and laying out in the open. I know it was a mountain lion because I have seen plenty of pictures of them and on TV so there was no mistaking for me. I was going to turn around to go back and take a photo of it but the next exit was several miles and I was tired and wanted to go home so I decided to forget about it because I figured it would be gone by the time I returned. Besides it was getting dark fast. It was so unusual that I called up the DNR the first thing that Monday to report it. I spoke to a wildlife biologist but he didn’t seem to care. I also googled white mountain lion sightings and I found one that was spotted in Texas not long ago. I would like to know if anyone else has ever seen a white mountain lion?

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