Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Connecticut Mountain Lion in the Biologists' Court

The mountain lion or cougar or puma:  in the not so distant past they prowled the wooded hills and valleys of New England.  In the 1930s the last Eastern cougars were reported killed and in the 1970s the Eastern cougar was declared extinct.  In recent years there were reports of cougars by people who saw bobcats or large house cats .  A few probably saw an occasional escaped pet cougar.  Some may have seen wild cougars but couldn't prove it, of course.  Sightings were usually dismissed by wildlife biologists.  

Then there was the beautiful mountain lion killed recently by a car in Milford, CT.  It was not a wistful figment of someone's imagination; there was the dead body in the road.  A pet, people said, an escaped illegal pet.  Or maybe it was released by an owner who could no longer care for it.  Since humans are what they are, these things happen.  But this was no pet.

Wildlife biologists had been tracking this particular mountain lion all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota.  How did they know it was the same animal?  They were able to collect hair and scat samples and the occasional photograph taken by people crossing paths with the cougar.  This was no pet, released or escaped.  This was the real, wild deal.  What was it doing in Connecticut?

Mountain lions will travel a very long distance to establish their territories.  They need large territories, too, to maintain a sufficient prey base.  Male cougars, especially, are known to travel considerable distances to find a new home.  In South Dakota there is a fair population of cougars so job opportunities, so to speak, would be limited for a young animal.  Opportunities to find a suitable mate would also be similarly limited.  It's easy to understand why a young guy would hit the road.

What drew this animal to travel so very far?  No one knows.  Surely there was good environment somewhere along the way; the woods of Wisconsin, perhaps.  So why Connecticut? No doubt the biologists will come up with a theory.  What I have is not so much a theory as a feeling.  Nature was trying to re-establish something we humans thought was lost forever.  Nature can do that.  We are surprised to find snow leopards in Afghanistan, mountain lions in Connecticut.  We thought we had destroyed them.  Not quite yet.  We should give nature a chance.    I suspect the biologists will concur.

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