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  • Staff photo by KATHY CLEVELAND One of two mountain lions that live at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness is shown.

  • Staff photo by MICHAEL CLEVELAND The female mountain lion participates in a training session with Kate Mokkosian at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness. During “Wild Cats of New Hampshire Day,” Mokkosian demonstrated training techniques designed to stimulate the animals and make health care easier.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

While state denies mountain lions are in NH, numerous sightings say otherwise

At 6:20 on the morning of Aug. 20, Cheri Mazerall had just let her cat out the back door when she saw what she describes as a “beautiful, large beige/yellow” animal with “large feet and a long tail” come over her stone wall on Center Road in Lyndeborough.

“I waved my arms into the air,” she said, “and went ‘shoo, shoo,’ and then it walked up the hill” away from the house.

Mazerall, who is a rural mail carrier for the Lyndeborough Post Office, said people try to tell her the animal couldn’t be what she’s convinced it is: a mountain lion.

It definitely wasn’t a bobcat, she says. She used to live in Michigan, and she saw bobcats there.

“They have tufted ears and spots,” Mazerall said.

Kim Bradford, another Lyndeborough rural carrier, believes her.

Bradford says she was driving up Baldwin Hill Road last summer when she glanced down and saw a mountain lion in front of her mail vehicle.

Its color resembled a golden retriever’s, she said, and it trotted across the road in front of her, its long tail “swooped up” and its belly hanging low.

A short while later, she delivered a package to a woman who lives nearby, and the woman told her she, too, had seen a mountain lion in the neighborhood.

Bradford and Mazerall aren’t alone. Many people in New Hampshire have claimed to have seen mountain lions.

David Erler says some of them probably have.

Erler is a senior naturalist at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness. On Oct. 10, he gave a slide talk called “Wild Cats of New Hampshire,” which included the bobcat and the lynx.

But the biggest cat that might be in New Hampshire, he said, is the mountain lion, also know by many other names, including cougar, puma and catamount.

Unfortunately, there is no “irrefutable evidence,” he said.

They were extirpated in the 19th century. The last one was said to be killed in Lee around 1850.

Since then, there have been no known road-killed or hunter-killed mountain lions. There have been no photos, no DNA evidence and no confirmed tracks or scat, Erler said.

“We have enough deer and moose” to feed a cougar population, he said, “but not enough evidence to say they are here.”

The state Fish and Game Department investigates up to 100 sightings a year, and also says none of them offer positive proof.

Erler thinks people do see mountain lions in New Hampshire, “But I don’t think there is a viable population” – meaning there aren’t enough healthy animals in breeding pairs to sustain a population.

Fish and Game goes too far in saying there are no mountain lions here, he told an audience of about three dozen people, and for understandable reasons.

If Fish and Game said yes, it would have to come up with a management plan, the cats would have to be protected and “elements of the hunting population” would object, Erler said.

Saying there are mountain lions in New Hampshire, Erler said, would “create a hornets’ nest I wouldn’t want to step into.”

But Eric Orff, a retired wildlife biologist with Fish and Game who kept track of sighting reports for 30 years, said all reports proved to be false, and if there have ever been any of the animals on the loose, they were escapees from private owners.

Every animal leaves lots of signs of its presence, Orff said, and definite signs of mountain lions have never been found in New Hampshire since 1940, when Fish and Game began investigating reports.

Lynx, on the other hand, although rare in New Hampshire, have definitely made a modest comeback since they were wiped out in the mid-1880s.

Lynx are somewhat larger than bobcats, with longer legs and similar stubby tails, but more pronounced ear tufts and bigger feet. One was found dead on a road in 1966 and another in 1993, Orff said. More recently, there has been “good tracking evidence” of one at the base of Mount Washington.

Mountain lions, however, “have never been documented here,” he said. No one has ever found fur, tracks or scat that could be confirmed as coming from mountain lion.

Nevertheless, every year, and all across the state, come reports from people who say they saw the big felines.

“There are as many (sightings) from the Manchester area as from the Pittsburg area,” Orff said. In southern New Hampshire, most of the reports come from Lyndeborough and towns west.

It’s easy to see why people are fascinated with the animals. The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center has two gorgeous mountain lions, a male and a female, that are on permanent loan from Montana, where they were orphaned in 2003.

They came to Holderness as blind kittens and now prowl a steep rocky enclosure.

Earlier this month, visitors were treated to a demonstration designed to help the cats “get used to presenting their claws and their bellies” for health checks, Erler said, and to stimulate them and exercise their minds.

The training and monitoring is for “practical purposes and not entertainment,” he said, and also gets the animals to present their bodies in such a way that they can be given injections if they need them.

On Oct. 10, Kate Mokkosian, the primary trainer, easily engaged the female cougar, which rose up on its haunches over an open metal grid and presented its shoulder to Mokkosian, who touched it with a fake syringe and then rewarded the animal with a rat.

The male wouldn’t play along, however, and seemed to be irritated by the crowd, Mokkosian said.

The female – the center doesn’t name its animals to avoid making them seem like pets – “is very laid back, very sweet, and she purrs and chirps,” Mokkosian said. While “the male growls, hisses and spits,” the female “is more relaxed in a large group, and is getting good at presenting her shoulder for the pretend inoculations.”

Squam Lakes opened the mountain lion training session to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays through the summer.

The center also has black bear, fisher, bobcat and other New Hampshire animals and bird species on exhibit, in line with its mission “to advance understanding of ecology by exploring New Hampshire’s natural world.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 21, or kcleveland@cabinet.com.