Thom Smith: Evidence of mountain lions in area exists
Through the years, and more so it seems, in the 1990s, I would receive reports of mountain lions seen locally. Many were questionable because of the lack of hard evidence. On the other hand, I and others are convinced that these big cats have wondered through the region, and from time to time, still do.
This said, DNA evidence is needed to determine if a sighting is an actual mountain lion that has migrated from the western United States or at the least of North American origin. It is nearly impossible that descendants of an original, remnant population is now being seen. And while there is tangible evidence that mountain lions have occurred in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York and Connecticut in recent years, most reports are not supported by reliable evidence. I know how easy it sometimes is to see the bird we might be hoping to see, and having it turn out to be something else. In most cases, this also holds true for the mountain lion. There are some earlier reports that I won't refute, like the following two, though real evidence is lacking:
During a six week period in the winter of 1991, James and Laurie Gibbons (a former councilor at The Pleasant Valley Nature Day Camp in Lenox, Mass.) watched a large cat in the meadow behind their Cheshire, Mass., home. About a quarter mile from the Appalachian Trail, the Gibbons property could easily have hosted the big cat reported from Florida Mountain. During one of the cat's visits, at about 10 a.m., James Gibbons "captured" the animal on video.
Laurie explained that "although the video does not do justice to the animal's size, it was large and long, maybe two to two and a half feet at the shoulders, tawny color, with a long tail with dark brown color at the tip. The tail was nearly as long as its body."
I watched the video, but could not be certain that it was indeed a mountain lion, though several professional naturalists called in at the time were convinced that was a good possibility. The question was raised, "If a mountain lion, could it have been an escapee?"
In another reported sighting, in early evening of July 6, 1997, Theresa Grow of Cummington, Mass., was walking her dog in a remote area near the Worthington, Mass., town line when her dog began barking wildly. Forty feet in front of her was a large cat with a long tail having a blackish tip. Grow is familiar with the smaller bobcat, and commented that this cat was "awesome" in comparison.
Charles Quinlan of Cummington, a naturalist who had been following mountain lion sightings was called, and together they discovered both deer and what appeared to be mountain lion tracks; one following the other. According to Quinlan, " The cat's gate was 36 inches, and several tracks clearly showed the double scallop in back with a single scallop in front. The pads were tear shape."
Tom French, MassWildlife's Assistant Director responsible for the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program for the past 31 years, wrote a recent article for Massachusetts Wildlife on the subject, "Mountain Lions in Massachusetts" (No. 2, 2015). I worked with him on reestablishing the rare red-bellied cooter for about 25 years, and admire his wide range of expertise. In the article covering the history and natural history of this large cat, he examines misidentification, fallibility of eye-witness accounts, hoaxes, getting evidence and more.
French writes, and I include excerpts, "The young adult male mountain lion struck and killed by a SUV on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Conn., June 11, 2012 provided absolutely irrefutable proof that a wild mountain lion, at least occasionally can make its way to New England. Ten days before its death, the cat was photographed in Greenwich, Conn. The photo was poor, but DNA from a scat sample confirmed this was the same animal killed on the parkway, [and] also matched this animal with scat, hair, and a blood sample from one location in Minnesota, three in Wisconsin, and one in Lake George, N.Y. The DNA profile of this animal showed that he had come from a population in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A journey of about 1,800 miles that took about one and a half years."
In my opinion, we want and need more conclusive evidence and Photoshopped images, some of which appear from time to time on the Internet, certainly do not help matters any.
More on this topic next week.
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