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  • Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

    This undated photo, probably from the 1920s in the western U.S., shows a cougar hunter at a time when bounties were still paid for carcasses.
  • Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

    Bruce Wright, New Brunswick wildlife biologist and author, with what is believed to be the last eastern puma. The puma was trapped by Rosarie Morin of St. Zacharie, Quebec in Somerset County, Maine in 1938. Mounted specimen resides in the New Brunswick Museum in St. John, New Brunswick.





  • Photo from Vermont Historical Society, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

    Alexander Crowell poses with the famous Barnard Panther, which he shot on November 24, 1881 at Barnard, Vermont. This was likely the last eastern cougar killed in Vermont.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

It’s official: Mountain lion long gone from NH

The mountain lion is dead, long live the mountain lion.

That’s pretty much the situation of New Hampshire’s biggest feline predator, which is now officially extinct after not being seen hereabouts for well over a century – unless, that is, you listen to the dozens of people who swear they’ve spotted one.

“No matter what Fish and Game says, they are here,” said Greg Otto, of Lyndeborough, who saw what he’s sure was a mountain lion dash in front of his truck a few years ago – “one bound, and it was across the road.” He has several friends who have also reported sightings.

“We do get comments from time to time, more often in the last couple of years,” said Bill Balam III, publisher of the Milford-based Hawkeye Hunting & Fishing News, possibly the premiere publication for hunters in New Hampshire.

“There are definitely reports of sightings, lots of them,” he said.

They aren’t sightings of the subspecies known as the eastern cougar, however, because on Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared it extinct. No eastern cougar has been found since 1938, and none has been officially reported in New Hampshire since 1853, when one was shot in the town of Lee. (Mountain lion, cougar, puma and catamount are all names for the same species.)

The end of the eastern cougar doesn’t necessarily rule out cougars in the east, however, because other subspecies are alive and well in the Midwest and Florida, and it isn’t impossible that some have made it here.

Perhaps not impossible, but very unlikely, officials say.

Patrick Tate, a wildlife biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game, examines claims of mountain lions. He says the state gets about one report a month.

“To this date, we still have had no physical evidence turn up in the state,” Tate said.

No photos, not even from the increasingly common automated “critter cams” used by hunters; no droppings; no tufts of hair caught on barbed wire for DNA testing; no animals hit by a car; no casts of footprints – nothing solid.

Officials dubious

Nonetheless, plenty of people, including experienced hunters and outdoorsmen, swear they’re here. There are regular reports online and called in to wildlife officials that mountain lions have been seen throughout New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.

Typical is this January posting from someone named Karl on Granite Geek, the Telegraph’s sci/tech blog:

“Just this morning, my wife and daughter both saw a mountain lion run across the road in front of their car as they were driving out of our development (Amherst, NH, area). …

“The prints have been appearing around our house and along the street for a couple of weeks now. This was the first time to see the actual cat. This is not some ‘released pet.’ It is very well fed, and very skittish.”

But Mark McCollough, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Orono, Maine, who was lead author on the just-released extinction report, is doubtful.

While it’s possible that an individual cat might live in the wild, he said, it could only be an individual that escaped from captivity.

Charmingfare Farm and Squam Lake Science Center are the only New Hampshire locations licensed to keep cougars, but around the country, a number of illegal pets have been found in outdoor enclosures or unlicensed wildlife parks, and sometimes they get out.

“There are as many as 1,000 cougars in captivity in eastern North America,” McCollough said.

Officials believe an escapee is the source of the only real recent evidence for a New England mountain lion: cougar “scat,” or droppings, found near Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts in 1990. No animal was ever found.

Many investigations, no results

Wildlife officials are certain that no breeding population of cougars exists in the Northeast, where the animals thrived until hunting and development drove them out a century ago, because lots of people have tried to find them.

Extensive studies throughout the Northeast in the 1970s came up empty, and since then, state and federal biologists regularly go out to investigate sightings, reports of footprints or following up the occasional blurry photo.

In Maine, McCollough tells a similar story.

“I’ve been called out to do many investigations on cougar sightings, as have our peers here … from tracks in the snow, to an animal seen in plain sight by multiple people in a field,” he said.

Typical, he said, was his recent snowshoe trek out to where a cougar had been plainly seen.

“They showed me exactly where it was – and they were coyote tracks,” he said.

The biologists said people have usually mistaken a coyote, a bobcat, a big dog or a bear – or even a fisher, whose long, flowing tail combined with the difficulty of judging the size of a fast-moving animal make this large weasel a surprisingly common visual substitute for a cat three times as big.

“People don’t judge the size appropriately,” McCollough said.

Tate says reports to his office have declined in the last half year, coinciding with an educational push to let people know that bobcats are returning to New Hampshire.

Bobcats are smaller than cougars and have much shorter tails, but nonetheless can easily be mistaken for a cougar, and he wonders whether people who previously would have reported a cougar now realize they saw a bobcat instead.

Slower to expand than coyotes, bears

There are plenty of wild cougars in the U.S., and New Hampshire has enough deer and other large game for them to survive here happily.

The western cougar subspecies thrives from California to Nebraska, and one was shot in Chicago last year after traveling all the way from Wisconsin. The Florida panther has rebounded to the point that some have wandered into Georgia.

There’s also a subspecies thriving in South America, although biologists debate whether all these subspecies, including eastern coyotes, are so similar that they’re really all the same animal.

(Despite what McCollough says is a common belief, there is no “black panther” subspecies; with rare exceptions, cougars are always tawny.)

The presence of those cougar populations leads to the question of whether some might migrate to our area, just as coyotes, bobcats and bears have done in recent decades.

The difference, McCollough said, is habit.

“Female cougars are very unlikely to disperse far from where they’re born,” he said. “Males will disperse, but not the females. That’s why cougar populations don’t expand very rapidly.”

Tate, the New Hampshire Fish and Game biologist, agrees. He says that while he wouldn’t be surprised to see wolves spread into New Hampshire, probably heading south from Quebec, he doubts that cougars would naturally make it here in our lifetime.

This skepticism is unlikely to stop the sightings, however, since it’s impossible to prove a negative.

“We’re a hopeful species,” McCollough said. “We regret in some ways what we did to our wildlife and environment. … We had bounties throughout New England for cougars and systematically went about eliminating them, as we did with wolves.

“I think there’s some element of regret and remorse that we have lost these majestic animals, which leads to wishful thinking – hopeful thinking.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.