Bill Betty: Mountain lions can adapt well to parts of the Northeast

Mountain lion.

Mountain lion.

This is a longer version, with links, of a previous article by Mr. Betty.

The mountain lion is the most widespread of any large terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. 

Indigenous people called them cougars, pumas, shadow cats or ghost walkers. European settlers expanding into the interior of North America eliminated them from most of their former territory in the East centuries ago. 

But in some parts of Canada they survived. Their descendants found in New Brunswick and Quebec today may be secretive, but they aren’t ghosts, cases of mistaken identity or figments of anyone’s imagination. Canadian scientists have identified them in multiple locations.  DNA samples were tested. The evidence is irrefutable.

Cougars are highly efficient predators that are well adapted to life in densely settled regions such as California where millions of people live. Thousands of cougars live there to. This is also true in the Northeast along Maine’s mid-coast region, where many of the state’s citizens make their home.  It’s also where most of Maine’s whitetail deer are concentrated.  That’s one major reason why the Atlantic Coast is perfect habitat for cougars.

Cougars are long-distance colonizers. Over the past 70 years dispersing pumas have been making their way south from the eastern provinces following rivers and streams or taking the coastal route. All young males and perhaps 60 percent of females leave their natal ranges seeking to establish home ranges of their own. 

Males can go more than 1,000 miles; females at least 800, although the average distances are much lower. Those in New Brunswick can easily reach southern New England.

It’s taken a long time for these animals to reoccupy the Northeast, almost as long as it’s taken in Nebraska, Iowa or Wisconsin, where cougars were eliminated in the past century. Examples of natural reproduction are limited. The arrival of more females from the north will increase the numbers of litters.

Persistent sightings of mothers and kittens across the Northeast are clues that recolonization is underway. Credible reports of family groups and a few confirmations suggest that natural reproduction is occurring at higher rates than officials are willing to admit.

The discovery of a female with a kitten in Monmouth, Maine, in September 2000 was an important finding. Keel Kemper, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, made the track casts. Vermont had a similar incident.  Legendary tracker Ralph Pomeroy encountered pumas in western Massachusetts from 1948-56, including evidence of a family group.  Seventy years later his daughter sighted one. Provincial biologist Bruce Wright photographed tracks of a female and kittens in New Brunswick decades ago and recorded more than 450 reports of mountain lions in two provinces. In 1972, Wright estimated that 100 cougars were still present in the East.

 Skeptics who think pumas are rare in the East believe cougars will eventually arrive from the West to reoccupy the region in, say, 30 years. Interventionists want to speed up the process by releasing Western lions in the Northeast. New York refused, and other states won’t accept this proposal either. 

Advocates believe there is sufficient evidence to conclude that mountain lions are already recolonizing the region. Motorized reintroduction, however, is a distraction that threatens to delay cougar management in the region indefinitely. And stakeholders know it.

Long-term studies from 2001 to 2011 by Mark Gauthier and Sophie Bertrand in three National Parks confirmed the presence of several populations of cougars in New Brunswick and Quebec. 

Because it’s currently impossible to distinguish the eastern cougar from the other North American subspecies based on DNA variation, Gauthier was unable to conclude whether these animals were remnants of a persisting eastern cougar population, escapees or dispersers from other North American populations. All three are possible.

Of the 19 positive identifications for pumas in Quebec and New Brunswick, 11 were North American haplotype and descend from a thousand generations of wild cougars in North America. Gauthier’s earlier estimate of the population in the study area was between 10 and 100 individual animals. The most recent one for Quebec alone was 15.

 A casual examination of isolated findings outside the study areas, along with sighting report maps from Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario, suggest many more cougars are found elsewhere in the provinces.  Given the vastness of the provinces, the volume of physical evidence, and the passage of time, it’s likely that the number of cats in eastern Canada is much higher.

In nearby Ontario, for instance, more than 500 examples of evidence has been discovered, including two photographs of large black cats thought to be melanistic jaguars. More than 30 confirmations of pumas have been made. 

Population estimates in Ontario range from 300 to 800 animals. All these pumas can’t be pets or dispersed males from western states. Some natural reproduction must be taking place.

DNA studies by Melanie Culver revealed that all the subspecies in North America (with one exception), including both the Florida panther and eastern cougar, are virtually indistinguishable. Many scientists accepted her landmark study. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFW) does not.

The mission of the USFW is to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. That mission apparently no longer includes mountain lions in the Northeast, at least not native ones. 

Federal biologists contend that the eastern cougar is a separate subspecies but believe it has been extinct for 80 years. In January, the USFW removed the eastern cougar from the Endangered Species List. Federal protections afforded cougars in the region — any native ones that might be still around or those with mixed ancestry — are gone. It’s up to the states to decide what to do with them now.

At least one state wildlife agency in southern New England believes residents can’t co-exist with mountain lions. It favors euthanizing them. Other states may follow their lead.

Having “nature’s perfect predator” around may be a good thing.  A study published in 2016 by Prugh and Gilbert described the benefits of cougars in the East in places such as Connecticut, where deer herds are out of control. Researchers think the presence of mountain lions taking overpopulated whitetails will reduce vehicle/deer collisions in some areas and even save some lives.

In northern New England, the issues are different. Bad winters and 15,000 coyotes have drastically reduced the deer herd in Maine. Cougars kill plenty of deer, but they also kill coyotes. And they eat them. If pumas do that in Maine, it may benefit the state’s sport hunters.

Michael Keveny’s 2012 Clark University study showed that most of the habitat in Massachusetts is suitable for these charismatic killers, including suburbs less than 10 miles from Boston and much of Cape Cod. Maine’s coastal regions are similar. It’s along the Atlantic Seaboard, not in the Allagash wilderness, where catamounts will find what they need to survive; abundant prey, adequate edge habitat and cover.

According to Wally Jukubas, a Maine biologist, “The Mid-coast region accounts for the biggest chunk of mountain lion sightings. It’s not where you’d expect them ... that is where the people are.”  The inland Maine mid-coast region still has plenty of deer, rabbits and turkey for prey.

At some point wildlife agencies in the East will be forced by circumstances to manage cougars. Maine is already one step ahead in the game. In 2014 it hired Nathan Webb, a native son, who spent the first 12 years of his career monitoring mountain lions, wolves and bears in Alberta, as its carnivore specialist.

Maine’s wildlife officials have other options besides benign neglect, which other jurisdictions appear to be following. Perhaps they’ll consider a hunting season in a few decades, when there is a sufficient number of cougars to sustain a harvest. Sport hunting has drawbacks, however, such as increased levels of infanticide, and will be opposed in some quarters.

Hunters will undoubtedly support that proposal, and the state will benefit from the revenue. In the meantime, state wildlife agencies need to give these predators adequate protection.

Agencies continue to favor the Black Hills of South Dakota as the place of origin for mountain lions in the Northeast — a thesis that has never received universal acceptance. Scientific research and evidence ranging from dead cougars to sightings by biologists point to someplace much closer as the likely source of our cougars.

If South Dakota isn’t the primary “source” for cougars in New England, where are they coming from? Florida has too few dispersing panthers to merit consideration. The only other place with an existing population that could supply the Northeast is Canada. And there is no longer any doubt that cougars are found there.

Time and space are factors. St. Stephens, New Brunswick, is 2,000 miles closer to us than South Dakota. Pumas could walk to Bangor, Maine, in a month or two. Quebec, which has its own cougar population, could make it in even less time. Dispersers from the north also wouldn’t have to cross six major rivers and numerous highways on a journey that would take young pumas from the Black Hills more than two years to complete.

Do we have thousands of mountain lions roaming the forests of New England? Probably not, but we don’t need thousands of breeding pairs to make a comeback. The USFW’s threshold is three groups of 50 individuals. 

Alan Rabinowitz, chief science officer for Panthera, believes there is a “small population of mountain lions ... that are surviving in small numbers in wooded areas of the Northeast ... who are maintaining themselves and breeding.”

Mountain lions that established home ranges in Maine and other New England states after 1938 may be the descendants of dispersing eastern cougars that survived in remote areas in Ontario, Nova Scotia or other eastern provinces during the past century.

Canadian authorities aren’t certain which subspecies of cougar are found in the Maritimes and other eastern provinces.  Eastern cougars are the obvious choice, but there are migrants and pets to consider. Animals with mixed ancestry have been identified.

Officially, the eastern cougar may be extinct in the United States, but the species is indisputably present in eastern Canada. If the ancestors of today’s big cats came from New Brunswick or Quebec, should they be considered an invasive species? Or close relatives of Maine cougars we should preserve and protect? That’s the real issue. 

Bill Betty, a well-known mountain lion expert who has researched and written about the big cats for years, lives in Richmond, R.I.

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.