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Cougars: Wild Kingdom

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It's a muggy, buggy, August evening and we've pitched our tents along the edge of Cherry Brook in North Canton, Connecticut. Bo Ottmann, a 41-year-old landscaper here, has strapped a half-frozen chunk of deer shoulder to the trunk of a tree 20 yards upstream. Another slab--red, bloody and wet--dangles from a high bough nearby, and a pair of motion-detecting trail cameras are trained squarely on the meat.

"I chose that spot," Ottmann says of his bait placement, "so when we're at the campsite tonight we'll have a visual on what's going on. I want to be able to see it."

Despite being less than a quarter mile off the main drag, the "it" could be many hungry things in this leafy and nominally ex-urban part of the state, not far from the Massachusetts border and about 30 miles southwest of Springfield. As in many states in the Northeast and New England, coyotes and black bears are making a steady comeback. Bobcat are also common.

Ottmann's quarry this night is none of these. He's after what some people call puma and others call cougars or panthers or catamount.

He's after mountain lions.

“I always loved mountain lions, big cats, when I was a kid,” he tells me as we sit around a campfire, waiting for something to happen. “You know, Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s ‘Wild Kingdom,’” — Ottmann continues, recalling the long-lived wildlife program. “That was the best TV show on Sundays when I was a kid.”

By morning, the meat is still dangling, untouched, and our impromptu field study turns up empty. That would come as no surprise to most wildlife experts, virtually all of whom say that, with the exception of a small and highly isolated population of big cats in Florida, cougars were hunted or otherwise driven from virtually every state east of the Mississippi River nearly a century ago.

But Ottmann, who travels with colleagues around the Northeast to educate residents about mountain lions, clearly believes otherwise, and the bizarre appearance last summer of a healthy, wild cougar in suburban Connecticut — killed by a car on the Wilbur Cross Parkway near Milford — only strengthened his convictions.

Cougars are, after all, unequivocally moving eastward again — though perhaps not quite as far as Ottmann believes. After being thoroughly driven into pockets of California and Montana and other western redoubts, research in the last 10 years has shown a steady increase in documented cases of cougars wandering into places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri and even Illinois. South Dakota and Nebraska now have comparatively new resident populations of the big cats.

In 2008, a wild cougar turned up in the streets of Chicago, where it was ultimately gunned down by police. But just how extensive — and sustainable — this eastward migration might be is a matter of some debate.

If the beasts can re-colonize Nebraska, how might they fare amid the densely populated suburbs and bedroom communities of a place like Connecticut? Wildlife experts, including Connecticut state biologist, Paul Rego, say it’s just too soon to contemplate such questions. “There are no mountain lions living in Connecticut,” he says.

But even if Ottmann is wrong, the Milford cat, which was determined to have made an unprecedented journey from the Black Hills of South Dakota, nonetheless suggests that these top-tier predators can, indeed, make themselves comfortable just beyond the shopping malls and airports and backyard swimming pools that represent the full complement of Eastern American sprawl. Will the most anodyne constructs of modern habitation — the New England suburb — now have to overlap and contend with some of the more formidable realities of nature and wildlife? Can cougars and Connecticut co-exist?

Rego suggests those are facile explorations.

“The cougars that are killed by people out West aren’t really co-existing,” he says. “Neither are the people whose pets or livestock are killed by cougars. It’s a fallacy to think that humans and wildlife, in the broad perspective, co-exist. We live — we take — wildlife habitat. I live in a house on about one acre, and because I live there, it’s not suitable habitat for certain wild animals. So do you.”

Ottmann says that’s precisely why he’s made it a mission to spread the word.

“One of my concerns was, I started hearing stories about mountain lions in people’s yards with kids,” Ottmann tells me that night at the campfire. “I thought, ‘Oh shit, my sister is here with two kids, and we’ve got woods in our backyard, too,’” he continues.

“So, I’m like, if I can prevent somebody from getting attacked by educating the public, that would be a good thing. And that’s how it started.”

The Milford Mystery

To be sure, the roadside death of the Milford cat, while sad, was a milestone event for everyone with an interest in American wildlife, professional or otherwise. Rego, a veteran wildlife biologist with Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) — and a man of otherwise sober, even pensive demeanor — calls it a “holy shit moment” during a recent visit to the state’s Sessions Woods Wildlife Division office in Burlington, where the remains of the cat are kept.

“It really was, like, holy shit,” Rego says. “We’ve had these unverified and numerous known false reports for decades, and here indeed was an animal that was a mountain lion. But on top of that, this was an impressive animal. It was 140 pounds. The largest animals we deal with regularly, excluding bears, aren’t that big. The largest bobcat we’ve ever handled was 39 pounds. Coyotes, you know, 40 or 45 pounds is a big coyote. So your size reference is like this,” Rego says, his hands measuring out a couple of feet of air. “And then suddenly you have an animal that, without the tail, is like this,” he explains, moving his hands broadly apart, “and it’s like, holy crap, look at that thing.”

At the point of European contact with the new world, big cats like this one could be found from coast to coast and from Canada to South America. Early taxonomies parsed these cougar populations into dozens of regional subspecies, and experts believe that the variant once endemic to the Eastern U.S. — known generally as the Eastern puma — was all but extinct by the 1930’s.

More recent DNA analysis has suggested that some of that slicing and dicing of regional populations into subspecies was overwrought, and that, at the very least, all North American cougars, east to west, are really the same species, although this is not yet universally accepted. In March of last year, a five-year review by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recommended removing the Eastern puma from the federal Endangered Species List because, in a nutshell, there just aren’t any left.

Today, some estimates put the remaining U.S. cougar population as high as 30,000 cats, though in truth, no scientifically sound population estimate has been established. What is generally accepted, however, is that virtually all of them live and breed in a loose constellation of regionally defined populations out West, where there is enough remaining wilderness to sustain a species that can require anywhere from 10 to 300 square miles to roam.

By this reckoning, the Milford cat — a sturdy adolescent male — seemed an impossibility, and initial speculation was that the animal had to be an escaped pet. Examiners scanned the carcass for evidence that the animal had been collared or declawed or neutered — or even allowed to go flabby in some domesticated setting. Its fur was combed under special lights to expose carpet fibers or other bits of manmade material, a telltale sign that it had been kept indoors, or had perhaps seen the inside of a vehicle. A forensic veterinary pathologist from Oregon flew in to examine the animal and conduct a necropsy. Its tissues were examined, and its stomach contents were analyzed to see if it had been fed commercial pet food.

In each case, nothing.

Tissue samples were then sent to a variety of labs for genetic analysis, the most prominent being the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana. The results were staggering: Not only had the animal apparently come from a known population in the Black Hills of South Dakota, it’s DNA precisely matched genetic samples that had been collected from individual samples of scat — that is to say, cougar shit — or hair found in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Not long afterward, a New York State biologist who had been following the Milford cat drama shipped the Missoula team some hair samples found near Lake George. These, too, came back a very close genetic match to the Milford cat.

What seemed to emerge was a revelation. This young male, perhaps in a relentless if directionally futile search for a mate, somehow managed to assemble thin patches of forest, scrubland, farms and almost certainly suburban backyard habitat into a 1,800-mile corridor linking the bedroom communities of Connecticut to New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and ultimately the wilds of western South Dakota.

“Even if we had them here, or if we lived in California and you and I were in a spot where they’re known to be,” Rego says, “we’d still be impressed by this animal.”

You Are Not Co-Existing

For all its magnificence, Rego says, the Milford cat was clearly an anomaly — the exception that proves the rule. A mathematical man, Rego has grown weary over the years of the endless stream of emails and phone calls and blurry photographs of supposed mountain lions submitted to his office. Many are well-meaning but clearly mistaken. He shares several breathless accounts of cougar sightings with accompanying photos of what are clearly house cats.

Many more submissions are obvious hoaxes — often using photographs of wild cats in the West that are easily found on the Internet.

Rego is also well aware that Ottmann and others hold him in contempt, and that they accuse him of ignoring or covering up the presence of cougars in the state.

“It’s frustrating,” Rego tells me. “It’s connected to logic. We just have an incredible detection network out there in form of roads, in the number of cars that strike animals, in the number of people walking outside in the winter, in cell phones people carry — everyone has a camera — and in the number of trail cameras. They are capturing all kinds of amazing photographs of wildlife in general. We get photographs — good photographs — of does giving birth to fawns. With cell phone cameras and trail cameras we get lots of nice, beautiful photos of bobcats. There’s just this incredible detection network out there, so where are all the photographs?”

I ask Rego whether there would be any downside if mountain lions did find a way to take up residence in a place like Connecticut.

“There’s a downside to having any animal in any area,” Rego says. “We have bears. We have complaints about bears. We have coyotes. We have lots of complaints about coyotes. Bears kill livestock. They kill pets. Coyotes kill livestock and pets. All these species worry people, whether the worry is justified or not. They worry people. They concern people.

“It’s a fallacy in the broad perspective to think that humans and wildlife — much wildlife — coexist,” he continues. “Deer damage crops in agricultural areas. They have to be managed or there’s going to be crop damage. The fact that you eat crops — you are not co-existing with deer. It’s a fallacy to think that there can be this utopian harmony with animals. That’s just not true. At certain levels, there’s really just tolerance.”

Clay Nielsen, an assistant professor of forest wildlife at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is helping to identify which states might want to begin contemplating tolerance strategies soonest.

Nielsen is the director of scientific research for the Cougar Network, a nonprofit research organization that is spearheading a rigorous analysis of cougar migrations. Along with his colleagues, he has clearly shown that cougar sightings have increased markedly in the Midwest over the last 20 years, and that individual cats from established populations further West are probing and in some cases re-colonizing the Great Plains.

The trend has prompted states that are seeing increased numbers of wandering males, but that don’t yet have resident bands of cougars, to begin contemplating how to officially deal with the issue. Missouri, for example, recently established a Mountain Lion Response Team through its Department of Conservation, and it has developed extensive public education programs.

“The return of mountain lions to Missouri is exciting to some, but frightening to others,” the state’s Department of Conservation Web site notes. “Because mountain lions have been absent from our state for so long, most Missourians have never seen them and don’t know much about their behavior.”

The site goes on to remind worried folks that they are more likely to be killed by a car, or by lighting or even by a dog, than by a mountain lion.

Nielsen says he’s working with state officials in Illinois to begin drafting similar management and outreach programs there. “We’re working on a management plan for cougars and wolves and black bears as well, just being pro-active and thinking about the future and having some policy and some thoughts on how we might deal with this issue, should it become more important in the future.”

Is it too soon for Connecticut?

“State agencies are strapped. State budgets are strapped,” Nielsen says. “They have time to work on things that are immediate and important, so it’s really hard for a state agency that says ‘We have no confirmations of cougars in our state’ to actually spend time and money on it when it’s not a pressing issue.”

Nielsen adds that he would like as much as anyone to uncover unambiguous evidence that cougars are repopulating places like New York or New Jersey or Connecticut, but that, beyond a handful of very rare and unusual confirmations — and Florida’s struggling population of about 100 cats — there is virtually no hard evidence that mountain lions are re-colonizing the Eastern United States.

But Nielsen also says he knows what it’s like to not be taken seriously, given that he began studying cougar presence in the Midwest more than 10 years ago, when no one thought the animals were an issue there. “People were laughing at me. Back then there was just the occasional sporadic confirmation and they would say, ‘Ha, cougars in the Midwest, yeah, whatever.’

“Well, we’ve amassed enough information now to suggest that this is happening.”

Cat Calls

Bo Ottmann and his fellow cougar enthusiasts say they are simply trying to do the same thing, and they deeply resent suggestions that they don’t know what they are talking about.

A week before I joined Ottmann in the woods, we visited the home of Bill Betty, a retired defense factory worker and the prime mover behind New England’s cougar awareness effort. Several years ago, he began delivering a self-made and rather lively PowerPoint presentation on cougars at libraries and Audubon chapters across New England. Ottmann attended one of these shows in 2007 and the two have been collaborating ever since.

Betty is something of a cougar magnet, claiming to have had at least 14 encounters with mountain lions in Rhode Island —
several at close range — since the early 1970’s.

“I would occasionally see mountain lions in Rhode Island, in places where they were never supposed to be — in the middle of the town at 1 o’clock in the afternoon,” he says. “I would tell people and they would dismiss it or even make fun of it. But then they’d come back two days later and apologize because 25 people told them the same thing. These were real events. They were not figments of anyone’s imagination.”

A rotund, gruff and fast-talking man, Betty grows quickly agitated when asked about the sentiments of biologists like Paul Rego or Clay Nielsen.

“I’m so tired of these guys. They are so boring. They have the same lines over and over again. ‘If there were mountain lions here, I would-ah knowed it,’” he says in mocking voice. “I’ve had so many assholes tell me stupid shit like that.

“The Cougar Network are some of the most anal retentive guys I’ve ever met in my life,” he adds, referring to Nielsen’s research group. “I mean, they’re probably nice guys and everything. But listen, if I can’t bring you a truckload of dead mountain lions, that doesn’t mean they’re not here, and they just will not accept that.”

“It’s all about money and politics,” Ottmann offers. “And ego.”

In the dining room, the table is strewn with maps and books and documents and data accumulated from years of research into the topic. Betty takes me through some of the slides that are part of his show. One includes an image of a man with his head stuffed firmly up his ass. It is titled “Naysayers, Skeptics and Doubting Thomas’s.”

Betty insists it is aimed at no one in particular, but he has little patience for the protestations of experts like Rego, who Betty says are merely beleaguered bureaucrats with neither the time nor the budget to acknowledge that cougars are resident in the East — either through steady re-population from Western or Canadian populations, or by dint of small, holdout populations that never left.

In turns, Betty seems to favor the latter explanation, though in the end, he says, it doesn’t matter. The number of sightings — credible sightings, he says — is just too big to ignore, and he’s taken it upon himself to inform the public. Asked why there aren’t more verifiable photos of Connecticut or Rhode Island cats, Betty again grows animated.

“It’s hard to get a photo of an animal that’s not going to follow the same route all the time,” he explains. “And if you have a camera, and we’re out walking on a trail right now, and a mountain lion comes out in front of us, you’re not going to take a picture. You’re going to be fucking frozen in fear.

“And you don’t go back home and say ‘Boy, you’re not going to believe what I saw!’ he adds. “You’re going to walk in ashen faced and say, ‘I just survived a close encounter with a fucking mountain lion.”

Back in the woods, Ottmann stares at the campfire and shares that, by now, he’s probably invested thousands of dollars of his own money in the Eastern cougar cause. He’s purchased expensive trail cameras, produced a Web site — Cougars of the Valley — and spent countless hours looking into sighting reports, or treking through the woods of north-central Connecticut in search of tracks or scat or hair.

I ask him if he felt vindicated by the appearance of the Milford cat. He said he did, but that there was much more work to be done.

“When the information came back that it was wild, that was a big day for us,” he shares.

In addition to the meat, Ottmann has placed an electronic receiver some distance into the woods across the creek, and as we sit and talk, he occasionally fingers a remote-control unit in his hand, triggering a variety of eerie sounds in the distant receiver — a bleating fawn, a jackrabbit — that might be of interest to a big cat on the hunt.

“It drove home the point of what we’re trying to do,” Ottmann says. “It said,

‘Yes, they’re here.’”

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.

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