'America's lion' needs wild space, less hunting, for a Northeast comeback

PHOTO PROVIDED BY U.S. FOREST SERVICE

GREAT BARRINGTON — Keep wilderness intact and stop the killing of them in the West. Then, maybe mountain lions will make a real comeback here, according to one expert.

Ecologist Susan Morse, who studied mountain lions for 20 years in the western states where they are established, says a true recovery of the species in the Northeast will require enough wild space for the big cats to have the privacy "to do what they do unmolested by people or livestock." She says this would be a good thing, since the cats would control deer populations that are "ruinous for our woods."

Morse, founder and director of Keeping Track, a Vermont-based nonprofit that trains people to record and monitor wildlife, says politically, restoring predators isn't popular.

But with wild animals, change can also happen fast, she said.

"We all remember on Tuesday, when there were no moose in our area, and by Thursday, there were moose," Morse said of the return of the species to Vermont. "I don't shut the door on the future. It's definitely happening — [mountain lions have] expanded their range."

While state officials and experts like Morse agree that the mountain lion is not breeding in Massachusetts and has been deemed officially extinct in the Northeast, they know that some of the cats also known as panthers, cougars and pumas do travel east of their established range, and there is science-based evidence to support this.

In Massachusetts, three sightings between 1997 and 2016 have been confirmed by scat, DNA, or tracks, according to the Cougar Network, a nonprofit that studies the habitat and movements of the big cats.

The Network's interactive map also shows confirmed sightings in Quebec, Maine, Connecticut and New York State.

Mountain Lion fever

Ever since a Monterey town official reported seeing one of the cats last month, reports of mountain lion sightings around the Berkshires over the years have continued to roll in.

People say they know what they saw.

"I have seen mountain lions twice in the Berkshires, both times in Egremont," wrote Daniel DuVall, who saw the cats in 1990 and 2015. DuVall said he knows what a mountain lion looks like, since he used to raise them at the Catskill Game Farm, a privately owned zoo in New York state.

"My son and I definitely saw a mountain lion, no mistake, in West Stockbridge," wrote Nancy Morandi of a sighting 15 years ago.

People writing to The Eagle say they've also seen them in Otis, Monterey, Sandisfield, Hinsdale and even crossing four lanes of traffic in Pittsfield.

"I was driving down Merrill Road in the middle of the day about 17 years ago ... and a mountain lion ran right out in front of my car and three others," wrote Beth Rose of Housatonic. "There's not a doubt in my mind that it was a mountain lion. It was tawny, sleek and muscular and had a very long tail and was way bigger than a bobcat."

Longtime Monterey-based naturalist Bonner McAllester has collected what she says are about five "ironclad, absolutely bona fide sightings" over the past couple of years, and noted that often people mistake a bobcat for it.

State wildlife officials say that seeing a mountain lion that has traveled this far east is unlikely but not impossible.

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the animal extinct in the Northeast, their populations cut down by bounty hunters in the 19th century.

But it's a question that also persists in other states, as people report seeing the large tawny cat outside its confirmed habitat. In 2015 researchers at the University of Minnesota and Southern Illinois University Carbondale found that since 1990, sightings to the east of the mountain lion's established range had risen, with sharp increases between 2006 and 2014.

Eastward bound?

Morse, who is also an adviser to the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the "recovery of cougars to all of their former range east of the Rocky Mountains," said there is evidence of long journeys east by male mountain lions to states like Missouri and Nebraska. But they'll only settle down in an area if there are females around.

"It's a known fact that mountain lions are trying to move to new habitats," Morse said. "Whether or not they will succeed will depend on the ability of females to get here from the western states."

When asked how females might make a comeback in the east, Morse said it depends on what goes on in the West, where mountain lions are killed for trophy mounts.

One hunting website says the cats are a prize catch, "The most elusive game in the Americas."

"Stop killing them at the source," Morse said. "This is not sane. This is America's lion. This is it — this is our only big cat."

The west affects the east

Mountain lion killings have risen in recent decades, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif., nonprofit.

"More than twice as many mountain lions were killed from 1971 to 2010 than were killed during the previous seven decades by bounty hunters," the organization's website says.

In South Dakota, where mountain lions are established, one state official said that Morse is right that hunting females will reduce the chances the cats will settle down in the Northeast, since female cats don't disperse as far as males.

But they will eventually get here, he said.

"Over time they will continue to move east provided they're not extirpated and mismanaged," said John Kanta, regional supervisor for the Wildlife Division within South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks. "Because it's different what we're doing now than what we did at the beginning of the last century when they were being poisoned and [killed] in an unregulated bounty system ... a free-for-all."

Kanta, who has tried cougar meat, and says it is "not bad if you can get past the fact that it's a cat," said the state has a harvest limit of 60, and that a harvest of 40 females will close the season early. He said the limits are rarely reached, and average around 30 — so far this season only six have been killed.

Even in South Dakota, people get worked up about this cat.

"When they see it in the paper it creates a kind of hysteria," Kanta said.

Ken Miller, a Cougar Network co-founder who lives in Concord, said scientific confirmation will lend credence to sightings in the Berkshires.

And Miller also says it's clear the big cat is eastward bound.

"It's just a matter of time."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.