Mountain lions can't be written off as myths

Monday July 16, 2012

Regarding the article on local legends in the July 8 Eagle, I must say I found the brief discussion of the issue of mountain lions a little disappointing.

The subject of the existence of this species, which also goes by the names puma, cougar, or catamount, in the Northeast is a complex and actively debated one among scientists, and I would urge care about lumping it into the category of myth and legend.

To say that scientists agree that these animals were "last here in the 1850s" is both vague and factually inaccurate, as there has been a diversity of positions expressed about this in the scientific community, though virtually all agree that cougars were certainly present in New England states long after that date. There is definitive documentation of members of the species killed in New England well into the 1930s, and there has never really been a lull in sightings since.

While wildlife researchers associated with universities and private foundations are much more receptive to the idea that there may remain breeding populations in re mote pockets of the North east, even state and federal wildlife officials who've been more opposed to this concept freely admit that many examples of individual mountain lions have been confirmed in recent years -- more than 110, according to the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service's chief researcher.

While these public officials may be more likely than their non-governmental counterparts in the scientific community to attribute all such cases to escaped pets and miscellaneous migration from the western U.S., to my knowledge no one is denying that they are occasionally spotted in the wilds all over the region. On a more local level, I would refer interested readers to extensive newspaper coverage of sightings around this county throughout the past century.

From the panther reported in Williamstown in September of 1899, one spotted in North Pownal in 1926, dozens of sightings from Pittsfield and the surrounding area in the mid 1940s, Great Barrington in 1966, and deluges of reports in 2000 and 2008, The Eagle, North Adams Transcript and other local media have frequently reported on reliable accounts of these elusive tawny creatures in our midst.

In addition to eyewitness testimony, the last decade and a half has yielded more definitive evidence of their presence all around us, from DNA confirmation of a scat sample found at the Quabbin Reser voir to a verified wild cougar struck by a car last summer in Greenwich, Conn., last summer.

While debate about whether all these proven occurrences of mountain lions represent de scendants of the original cats that prowled the East Coast or some combination of escaped pets and redistribution from West Coast distribution areas is likely to continue between re searchers for years to come, it is folly to imply that the many Berkshire residents who've en countered them are all seeing things or telling tall tales.




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