Border-jumping cougars in N.E.

ThinkStock ---- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

By BILL BETTY for ecoRI News

Sue Morse is an expert in natural history and one of the top wildlife trackers in North America. A recent article about her caught my attention. She believes the northern counties in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and New York would be ideal places for migrating cougars to reoccupy. These areas have what pumas need to survive: prey, open space and cover.

Morse, the founder of Keeping Track, believes that South Dakota cougars will spread to Manitoba and then to Ontario. Their descendants will eventually reach New England.

Besides Ontario, it’s likely the origins of these recruits to New England will be from Quebec and the Maritime Provinces. Mountain lions have already been identified there. Ontario has them as well, and Morse’s Manitoba trekkers will only add to the number of free-ranging North American genotype cougars now  found in the province. Since all North American subspecies are virtually indistinguishable, this will hardly make any difference in their genetic makeup.  And we’ll still call them eastern cougars no matter what anyone says.

The Ontario Puma Foundation has estimated the number of mountain lions at 550. One has been shot, another captured and about 24 confirmations have been made. Nearly 500 pieces of evidence have been recovered. Despite this, obstructionists continue to issue denials, suggesting that all of these cougars are males — hence no natural reproduction.

Studies by Marc Gauthier and Anne-Sophie Bertrand during the past two decades have confirmed 19 mountain lions in New Brunswick and Quebec. Gauthier’s latest estimate of an existing population in Quebec is 10 to 100 pumas. Three mountain lions have been killed in Quebec, including a lactating female cougar that was hit by a truck near the New Hampshire border.

Advocates who favor restocking the Northeast by releasing Western cats into the region reject any suggestion that natural reproduction is taking place in the East because it undermines their raison d'être.

Five Nova Scotia events would be categorized as “class II” discoveries elsewhere, including the 1986 incident where the Bower family carried an unconscious cougar to the side of the road — similar incidents have happened in New England. Nova Scotia officials have classified this knockdown as “virtually certain.”

In addition, a number of provincial employees, including the head of the province’s Endangered Species Division, have reported sightings or found evidence.

In short, what we have sitting across the Canadian border is  Montana is an enormous tract four times the size of Texas where mountain lions are present in sufficient numbers to persist. If pumas can drift down here from Ontario, they can just as easily wander into northern New England from Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

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 is 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.

Morse and I hold similar views on this subject. Eastern Canadian migration is, in fact, what I have been suggesting for the past decade. She believes this dispersal of cougars to New England and New York may take as long as 30 years for a breeding population to return. Judging by the number of reports recorded and the evidence collected in the Northeast, it’s my view that this migration has been ongoing for decades. It’s possible that we already have a number of mountain lions in New England with ancestry from Quebec or nearby provinces. Others here may be from Michigan and other Midwest states.

Northern New York, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont have brutal winters, deep snow and the lowest deer population in the Northeast. If Morse believes  that these are ideal are conditions for puma, then what about Spencer, Mass., Pomfret, Conn., or Stanford, N.Y.? They all have relatively moderate weather, less snow, more deer and plenty of open space. These places also have farms, gardens and orchards. It’s where people have chosen to live, and now mountain lions are being seen there.

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.” Hornocker told me  that he thought cougars would “start showing up in New England.”

Much of the evidence confirming lions has been discovered near settled areas. In 2011, a cougar was road killed on the Merritt Parkway, which runs through Connecticut’s Fairfield County. A million people live there. So do 30,000 deer. Pumas have been discovered in places such as Greenwich, Conn. Cougars of the Valley, a nonprofit based in Canton, Conn., has enlisted the help of local houndsmen to locate cougars using specially trained scat dogs.

Michael Keveny at Clark University analyzed potential sites for cougar reoccupation in Massachusetts and concluded that many parts of the state had adequate habitat for pumas to survive. Some like Cape Cod and Bristol County, Mass., he considered the “best.” Sport hunting zones around Boston have kill totals that are five times higher than those from the state’s three western counties.

In New York State, it’s much of the same story. John Laundre has identified the Adirondacks as a potential site for cougar reoccupation. He believes that the area could support as many as 390 pumas. Western New York could support a lot more. Deer kills in some southern and western New York counties, for example, are more than 10 times higher than in the Adirondacks. With a million whitetails, New York is a fertile hunting ground for apex predators.

Maine’s highest deer harvest was reported in the Midcoast region, where many  of the state’s residents live. Deer kills in these five districts far exceed those from the interior. In fact, 100 northern townships had zero sport hunting kills last year. One person who presumably is watching all of this is Nathan Webb, a carnivore specialist and mountain lion expert with Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, who was recruited from Alberta, Canada.

If Burlington, Vt., and Lake Placid, N.Y., are ideal habitat for mountain lions in Morse’s opinion, then the towns and cities in New England and Atlantic Canada surely meet the definition of cougar heaven. There have been reported sightings of large cats in Rhode Island. The urban/woodland interface on the outskirts of coastal settlements have everything  that mountain lions need to survive: numerous whitetails, small mammals, song birds and waterfowl; adequate edge habitat in the form of fields and clearings; and abundant patches of woods and brush that provide excellent cover.

Ontario dispersers will show up in New England or New York at some point if they haven’t already. It’s possible some of the recruits that establish home ranges in the Northeast will be migrators from Nova Scotia, Quebec or New Brunswick. A few that pass through northern New England will probably continue on to more hospitable places such as New Milford, Conn., or Rochester, Mass. Their arrival will not go unnoticed by other members of their species.

Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, lives in Connecticut. He believes there is a small population in the region that is maintaining itself and breeding. He doesn’t accept the explanation that every cougar wandering the edges of suburbia is a former pet that managed to escape. If he’s right, then some local mountain lions must be border jumpers that found their way to southern New England from their natal ranges in eastern Canada by following rivers or hugging the coast.

We should celebrate the arrival of mountain lions in New England. Vermont has done so by putting the face of a catamount on its license plate. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife has taken a step in the right direction by stating that “a large cat would be safeguarded under state statute — a welcome visitor, like any other indigenous animal (other than threat situations).”

Acknowledgement of mountain lions in their jurisdictions will be the next step for all of the New England wildlife agencies. I’m not optimistic  that it will happen soon. Some states have sent officers to tracking schools in Wyoming or exchanged personnel with western states to learn firsthand about pumas. Others have circled the wagons. Money and manpower are issues.

The odds of this apex predator surviving and reproducing along the coast in Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island or in the rolling hills in southern Vermont or New Hampshire are much better than in the hinterlands of New England. Abundant resources make these locations a predator’s paradise. And you don’t have to be one of the puma illuminati to figure this out.

Bill Betty is a Richmond, R.I., resident.

Robert Whitcomb: A civic celebration and a cruise

  I enjoyed a piece of small-town Americana on Sept. 17, when I gave a talk at a luncheon meeting of the Bristol (R.I.) Rotary Club. Oh, for a renaissance of such civic organizations!


The club is part of Rotary International, which aims to bring mostly local business and professional leaders together to promote humanitarian service, boost ethics and encourage friendship and goodwill. The few dozen people at the meeting were thirtysomethings to eightysomethings; everybody seemed to have current or past professional or business connections.


I felt transported back to the Fifties. The meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the National Anthem (with an 89-year-old lady playing the piano) and a nondenominational prayer. After lunch, attendees sang some pre-rock songs. Then came my talk, about the Islamic State, and smart questions.


It would be hard to find a nicer and more engaged group. Participating in such organizations has tended to decline in America in the last few decades. That’s sad, because they do a lot of fine stuff for their localities and the nation, raising money to fight illnesses, promoting education (especially through scholarships), sprucing up parks and many other good causes. Their decline is of a piece with the general slide of civic life. It’s harder these days to get people to run for office, serve on local boards and join charitable drives.


Cynics like to make fun of such upbeat, boosterish organizations, but they address the need of a healthy democracy to have a wide variety of agile nongovernmental organizations serving the public.


Increased mobility, more dispersed families, shorter-term jobs, the distractions of life on the Internet and the general weakening of the middle class have tended to shrink the memberships of service organizations such as Rotary. Let’s hope that can be reversed. That these clubs generally eschew “virtual’’ meetings online in favor of frequent face-to-face encounters is a particular plus. In-person members often become real friends, and thus more likely to encourage themselves and their fellow members to follow through on good works.


Later, I walked around Bristol, and marveled at its antiquarian beauty.





The next day I had a meeting on a small (perhaps 32 feet long) sailboat usually moored off Stamford, Conn. We sailed west to off Greenwich, where we anchored near an island with a gazebo on it. It was late in the season, of course, and there were only a couple of other people there. The menacing Manhattan skyline was in the distance.


We went swimming, in remarkably warm water, and talked about a project in China while admiring the beauty of the day – a glory that seems to go on day after day in September and early October in New England. For a few weeks, we have a champagne climate, albeit tinctured with melancholy about what will follow soon enough. But then “the American Season’’ as it has been called, is both a poignant annual ending and an often boisterous beginning.


To the north could be seen the waterfront mansions of the hyper-rich in Greenwich, not that far from slums in Stamford. The “1 percent’’ is what Greenwich is most famous for, and even more so since Wall Street became so much more powerful and rich in the past few decades, via hedge funds, private-equity firms and investment banks. (That the huge California Public Employees’ Retirement System has decided to quit hedge funds might start a wave that could do some damage to a few of the owners of these houses.)


After we had been at anchor for a while, a young woman in our party said that she had to get back to New York pronto. So our skipper decided to sail the dinghy we had been towing all the way to Greenwich, from whose shores the young woman would make her way to the train station. She made the train, but the wind died and so our captain (a film director!) had to row most of the way back to the bigger boat, where we grew slightly anxious waiting.


Finally the wind came up a bit and we saw his red sail, in the sunset. “There’s John!,’’ we shouted, trying to restrain the sound of relief.

  Then we slowly made our way back to Stamford through calm and bioluminescent waters; thank God for the inboard motor. I stayed that night in a cheap Stamford motel, some of whose illegal-alien workers might also be leaf blowers on the grounds of the Greenwich estates. There were cigarettes on the motel’s floors and its “breakfast’’ provided only Cremora for coffee. But perhaps that TV’s in the rooms showed very fuzzy images of athletic pornography to channel surfers was adequate recompense for many weary travelers.


Robert Whitcomb ( is a Providence-based writer and editor who oversees this site.




Some real and movie time with Pete Seeger

In the late spring of 1970, a group of about a dozen of us (I was along for the ride with a girlfriend of the time) spent a few hours with the mellow-voiced Peter Seeger at his 17-acre  rustic homestead, in Beacon, N.Y., on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. It had been a lush,  warm spring, famous for anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. We had a cookout, at which Seeger was an affable host. He, of course, sang and played the five-string banjo, and a few others joined in making music.

Way down below on the river was a sloop that he owned that he was using in the early stages of leading a campaign to  stop the likes of General Electric and other organizations from dumping toxins (some carcinogenic) into the river (which  that day, despite its poisons, looked like 18th Century painting of the Rhine. Gorgeous!). It seems astonishing now to think of what we dumped into our public water, both as individuals and as institutions.

I generally disliked folk songs back then -- the lyrics seemed too sentimental and sometimes far too preachy and the tunes  repetitive and clunky. I find them easier to take these days because I hear them as part of the broad flow of history. Or maybe I'm just getting hard of hearing....

Meanwhile, take a look at this segment of the very funny and sad movie The American Ruling Class. In it, Pete Seeger is walking, banjoing and singing down a road in what seems to be a very pastoral part of Greenwich, Conn., a capital of the sometimes rapacious capitalism that the old leftie hated. I think it's pretty funny, as is much of the movie, directed by John Kirby, produced by Libby Handros and with writer/editor Lewis Lapham as the master of ceremonies. He takes us to a lot of other celebrities commenting on American society in the years before the Great Crash of 2008.

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The big dripper



"Jack the Dripper,'' by JOE FIG (courtesy of the artist and the Tierney Gardarin Gallery, New York), at the Bruce Museum, in Greenwich, Conn., in the current "Artists' Studios: Small-Scale Views'' show.

The "Jack'' here is, of course, famed abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, whose violent alcoholism would have been denounced by the quiet and dignified alcoholics living in the famous rich precincts  of Greenwich.