Where the wild things aren't... yet

mountain lion in zoo by Greg Hume cc

A mountain lion (cougar) in a zoo. / photo: Greg Hume (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikipedia

The reported mountain lion sightings near Cambridge in Washington County recently is a familiar story. [Post-Star]

Mountain lions!? Here!? In 2011 The US Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the eastern cougar had likely been extinct since the 1930s. Even so, there have been people -- naturalists, hikers, people drinking coffee on their decks -- who say they've seen one of the big cats in the eastern US since then. And the rather wayward journey of one of the cats through New York and into Connecticut a few years back just stoked those rumors.

After covering this topic a bunch of years ago for another outlet, we've thought this was one of those fun mysteries -- the kind of thing people hoped was true. That maybe our part of the world was a little more wild than we all thought.

Many parts of the Northeast have been going through an interesting environmental change over the last century in that they've actually been gaining forest land as former farmland falls back into being forested. As it happens, these once-again-spreading forests aren't exactly like the Northeastern forests of centuries ago -- the mix of trees is probably different. And they lack many of the big predators that disappeared through hunting and habitat loss. Or, at least, they have lacked those predators -- because that could be changing. [Science Daily]

From a Boston Globe article earlier this year:

Mountain lions and wolves--large predators--are indeed starting to make inroads into New England. "They really are here sometimes," [Massachusetts state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife assistant director Tom] French said. And experts believe that within a decade or two the animals, which disappeared from Massachusetts more than 150 years ago, could be back in much larger numbers.
"The eastern border of the range of mountain lions is moving progressively more and more east, and it's only a matter of time until it reaches all the way to the East Coast," said Noah Charney, a wildlife ecologist and animal tracking expert who has worked with the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program for the past seven years. "I sort of suspect that all of a sudden one day we're going to know there are mountain lions here. There's going to be no question. And it might happen really fast. It might be a family moves in, they start breeding, and within a few years, there's a whole lot of them."

If/when mountain lions or wolves start showing up in, say, Saratoga County, it's going to take some adjustment on everyone's part. Because we're not accustomed to having such large wild predators in this part of the country and sometimes there are unfortunate human/predator encounters -- cattle get eaten, a pet taken, or very occasionally, a human is attacked. (Of course, we do already have bears here -- and they present their own set of similar complications, so this isn't totally foreign. The same goes for coyotes.)

That said, the arrival of these predators isn't necessarily a bad thing. One of the reasons deer are such a problem is that their only predators in most places are humans (and their cars). And there are potential secondary positive effects -- there's research that indicates the greater the density of mice predators (namely foxes), the lower the incidence of Lyme disease because the mice act as a reservoir for the bacteria. [NYT]

Anyway, the news today got us reading the DEC's page about eastern cougars. And it includes this bit at the end:

False Rumor: DEC Releasing Cougars to Control Deer
Rumors have been circulating for the past few years that the DEC has released cougars to control deer populations. Some of these rumors claim that Officer 'Jones' participated in the release, or that people have actually seen cougars with ear tags or neck collars, so they must have been released by the state. This is not true. The DEC has never released cougars, despite what you may hear to the contrary.

Eh, mountain lions wouldn't want to work for the state now anyway (the pension just isn't what it used to be).

By the way: We saw a hawk catch a squirrel by Buckingham Pond -- yep, right in the middle of Albany -- last week. And it was wild -- in multiple senses of the word.

Earlier on AOA:
+ Your new neighbors, the fishers
+ Foxes and fishers and bears, oh my!

Comments

FASCINATING article! Thank you!

I've seen one in the capital district with my own eyes, crossing the road in front of my car.... clear as day, giant long tail and enormous land-covering stride in broad daylight. I'm not crazy, it was there. I told my aunt about it. She tells me a story about one in the village of nassau years before that. Several years later I meet a lady who gets calls every time there's a wild animal in a populated place (think bears in trees) as she has an expertise in this field and a fur-bearers permit. She helped to release the mountain lions in the Catskills years earlier. The state can stop with the lies now. All it does is make them look even less believable.

Yesterday's article sent me on a similar google spree. I found this:http://www.cougarnet.org/northeast.html which is crazy interesting and seems pretty legit.

Driving from Glimmerglass State Park to Albany two summers ago I would SWEAR we saw a cougar cross Route 20, a four lane highway! At the time I Googled to see if there were other sightings down there and got only the spiel from DEC they are extinct (and the conspiracy theories). I must say, I am feeling vindicated!

So, what you're saying is...I should get in all of my ADK High Peak hiking *now*.

Hearsay: about a decade ago, a friend o mine told me that he had heard from reliable sources that these cats had been released into the wild by DEC to control the deer population. I didn't really buy it, but who knows?

I had more than one conversation with a local Animal Control Officer about his firm belief that there are Eastern Mountain Lions in our area (Helderburghs). He said he's seen and documented scratch marks, like when a house cat stretches out, that were about SIX FEET in length.

My parents live in rural Rensselaer County and they, along with their neighbors, have spotted a large cat estimated to be about 40-50 lbs over the past few years. Perhaps it's the same one now residing in Cambridge... ?

Driving to work July 21 6am a mountain lion ran across in front of my jeep. I was traveling south on Rt 40, two miles south of Rt 67. Cat was flat out running east to west.
I looked right at the rear end to check out tail before looking at the head. Tail was as long as body, short hair, golden in color. I live in Cambridge , I have not seen this animal there. But I did see a bobcat run across rt 22., that had a snub tail and half the size of the mountain lion. I did report it to Encon.

Braked for what I thought was a small deer on Rt. 28 in Delaware County NY. It definitely wasn't a deer. About 80 lbs., tan in color, long tan tail, head seemed small for body length. Definitely not a domestic cat. Didn't look or act like a dog. Was standing still and then loped into the woods. It was dark at 3 am but I was intrigued and Googled mountain lion images. Looks like a possibility. Didn't know anything about mountain lions in the Catskills but wanted to know what I saw.

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