Still Looking For The Elusive Mountain Lion

Forests across much of the Northeast are still home to bobcats, and Canada Lynx can still be found in Maine. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently declared the region's biggest wild cat -- the eastern mountain lion -- is officially extinct. However, a growing number of biologists think mountain lions could return to reclaim their territory in the Northeast. As part of a collaboration with Northeastern Public Radio stations, Brian Mann has our story. Northeast environmental reporting is made possible in part by a grant from United Technologies.

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Forests across much of the Northeast are still home to bobcats, and Canada Lynx can still be found in Maine. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently declared the region's biggest wild cat -- the eastern mountain lion -- is officially extinct. That might sound like the end of the story, but a growing number of biologists think mountain lions could return to reclaim their territory in the Northeast. As part of a collaboration with Northeastern Public Radio stations, Brian Mann has our story.

Ecologist Ray Curran trudges through spring snow in a pine forest high in New York's Adirondacks Mountains and points toward a rocky ridge.

"Looks like really good mountain lion habitat, something you'd see in the Rockies. Great places for wildlife to hide."

Curran worked for decades for one of New York's environmental agencies.

Back in the early Nineties, a couple of his co-workers reported seeing a female mountain lion and two cubs on these bluffs. Curran spent months looking for them.

"I would come back periodically, I would look for tracks, with no further observations -- so it was a dead end."

Mountain lions go by a lot of different names. Cougars, pumas, panthers and catamounts. The animals are so stealthy that some people even call them ghost cats. Scientists like New York state wildlife biologist Ken Kogut think they probably died out in the Northeast as early as the 1930s, due to hunting and heavy logging.

"The habitat didn't exist. Not only that, the prey base for mountain lions was essentially gone. White tail deer were extremely, extremely rare. So for me to think well, geez, there was a remnant population -- I just don't believe it."

But there's a wrinkle here. Sightings of mountain lions in the Northeast are still tantalizingly common and Kogut himself spotted one in 1997 while driving down a highway.

"It looked at me and then with one bound, it literally cleared the other lane, cleared the shoulder of the road, and landed in the ditch. And the last I saw was it running south with a long black tail tip ... and of course it was like, wow...What did I just see?"

Kogut thinks the cat he saw and the mountain lions other people are seeing are probably exotic pets, released into the wild when they grow too large and dangerous. He also thinks a lot of the reports are just inaccurate. But a lot of mountain lion enthusiasts in the Northeast disagree.

"The eastern Cougar was more of a reddish-tint cougar, and a lot of the people of the hill towns of Connecticut and Mass have been spotting that that color."

Bo Ottmann is a landscaper in Connecticut who started an organization called Cougars of the Valley. He's convinced that state and Federal wildlife experts are covering up evidence that breeding populations of mountain lions remain.

"If they take the eastern cougar off the endangered list, that means they don't have to protect them, they don't have to spend the money."

The vast majority of scientists say if mountain lions still lived in the Northeast, they'd see more traces -- everything from tracks to scat to skeletal remains. But a growing number of scientists do think there's a good chance that mountain lions, also known as cougars, will come back. Mark McCullough is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Cougars have expanded their range eastward in recent decades. And there are some cougar biologists who believe that they'll continue to expand perhaps as far east as the eastern seaboard."

Mountain lions have adapted to humans, learning to live on the fringes of small towns and suburbs. They've also expanded their range faster than anyone expected -- moving from Western states like Idaho and Wyoming and reaching as far east as Minnesota and Indiana.

McCullough, who's based in Maine, says the dramatic re-growth of forests in the Northeast and the revival of whitetail deer populations means those migrating cougars could re-colonize here.

"We have areas in eastern North America that are large enough, have the right kind of habitat, adequate prey populations."

Hiking along a hillside in New York's Adirondack Mountains, ecologist Ray Curran says he loves to think that this is one lost species that could find its way home.

"Oh, I'd love to see them back here because to me, it would add interest to being out here in the woods, and they're beautiful animals when they're hunting."

If mountain lions do return to the Northeast in coming decades, biologists say humans will have to learn to coexist with the big cats just as they have with other wild animals like black bears.

For WNPR, I'm Brian Mann.