Cougars in the Northeast: Phantoms or flesh?

Cougars in the Northeast: Phantoms or flesh?

Frank Graham Jr.
Published: 04/20/2009

By nature, I’m a nattering nabob of negativism. Skeptic is my middle name, and no, I’ve never believed in fairies, angels, or UFOs. But I like to think there is a cougar or two out there in the forests of the northeast, and scientists are now beginning to sort out reality from the disinformation and prop up my positive side.

Recently I attended a lecture and slide show on eastern cougars at the campus of the Schoodic Education and Research Center in Maine’s Acadia National Park. The speaker was Mark McCullough, an endangered species biologist for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has been working on a survey to clarify the status of cougars in the eastern states. It hasn’t been easy. He has sifted through countless reports of sightings, but 90 to 95 percent of those investigated by professional biologists (even when given a good lead) can be ruled out.

“I try to keep an open mind,” McCullough said. “I would never say never. But most people out there don’t really know their wildlife well, and even when they post photos on the Internet, the supposed cougar usually turns out to be a dog, bobcat, fisher, coyote--or a hoax. A surprising number are, on close examination, tabby cats.”

Yet cougars (a.k.a. pumas, panthers, or mountain lions) are reasonably common in the West and genuine sightings are increasing in the Midwest. In fact, police shot a 150-pound male in Chicago last year--yikes! The species has the largest range of any mammal in the western hemisphere. It’s found from the Yukon to Patagonia, and in almost every kind of habitat from boreal and temperate forests, plains, and deserts, to the Rocky Mountains and the Everglades. But merciless persecution, plus deforestation and the virtual destruction of the white-tailed deer and other large prey animals by hunters in the eastern states during the 1700s and 1800s, doomed eastern cougar populations. A very few may have survived into recent times in the southern Appalachians, as did that isolated population of cougars near the Everglades called Florida panthers.

Maine, the most heavily forested state in the northeast and boasting a healthy deer population, seems a likely place to attract cougars that wander in from Canada or our western states. The species hung on here until 1938, when the last one was thought to have been killed. Most reports since then haven’t checked out. But during the 1990s, residents of Cape Elizabeth near Portland saw one drinking from a pond near the ocean. After searching the area, biologists found fur stuck to bushes, and analysis proved it to be from a cougar. In the same decade, when someone spotted a cougar and a kitten crossing railroad tracks in Maine, paw prints discovered nearby clinched the identification.

Although some admirers believe cougars have established small breeding populations in remote areas of the northeast, McCullough doubts it. “If, for instance, there was a population in Maine, we should certainly see more signs of cougars now,” he said at Acadia National Park. “Our surveys of lynx, which are rare in the state, turn up tracks and other solid evidence of that species, but not cougars. The same is true in other eastern states.”

Today, McCullough said, there are about 1,000 cougars kept in captivity in the eastern states, most originating in the pet trade from South America. “Cougars are large, dangerous animals,” he pointed out. “Some escape, others are released into the wild by their owners when they discover they can’t handle them. Those are often the cougars that people see in the wild here in the northeast.”

But clearly, a few individuals are moving east and the ghosts are taking on substance.