When an adult male cougar was hit by a car and died in Connecticut in June, Mainers voiced a common refrain: We told you so.
The presence in Maine of wild cougars — also commonly called mountain lions — has been debated for decades. Many Mainers say they’ve seen them. Lacking hard evidence to the contrary, biologists have been understandably wary. And in March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effectively poured gas onto the smoldering debate by issuing a report that declared the eastern cougar extinct.
That may be true — there’s still no evidence that wild eastern cougars roam the Maine woods.
But earlier this week, officials in Connecticut unveiled their findings after a necropsy and in-depth analysis of the cougar that died last month. The results stunned and excited biologists who have spent their careers studying the animals.
The Connecticut cougar wasn’t a captive animal that had escaped, as many thought it was. And it wasn’t an eastern cougar. Instead, it was a record-setting cat that ran, walked and jogged all the way from South Dakota (while being tracked on trail cameras and through DNA matching of scat samples — in Minnesota and Wisconsin).
“As a biologist who has looked pretty carefully at the cougar issue, I was really astounded, as I think most biologists who deal with cougars were at this information,” said Mark McCullough, who serves as the lead eastern cougar biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and works out of the service’s Orono office. “It does, apparently, set a record as far as dispersal distance for any land mammal in North America that we’re aware of, and is significantly beyond the previous record of dispersal of a cougar as far as straight-line distance.”
Dispersal, McCullough explained, is a natural movement of nearly all birds and mammals. McCullough describes it as nature’s way of avoiding in-breeding. When they disperse, young animals move into their own territory and set up house.
Female cougars generally disperse about 20-50 miles, he said. Males move farther afield, but generally stop within 100 miles of where they were born.
Not this cat.
The Connecticut cougar started in the Black Hills of South Dakota and traveled some 1,500 miles before meeting his demise. The previous record for cougar dispersal, according to McCullough, was about 640 miles.
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Wally Jakubas handles cougar issues on the state level. He receives several reports of cougar sightings each year, and knows some have been frustrated when their claims can’t be verified.
“We are taking their reports seriously,” Jakubas said. “But in order for us to do our jobs, we need some kind of physical evidence … it would be irresponsible for us just to say, ‘OK, that was a cougar.’”
The DIF&W has investigated plenty of sighting reports, as has the Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the time, the reports turn out to be cases of mistaken identities. McCullough said black bears, fishers, dogs, cats, bobcats and Canada lynx have all be mistaken for cougars over the years.
Neither of the biologists doubted that cougars were present, mind you.
“I’m sure there are people who have seen cougars,” Jakubas said. “And we’re not saying that there are no cougars out there. But if somebody actually sees a cougar, the most likely place that cougar came from was that it was a captive cougar or was released.”
That was a hypothesis when the Connecticut cougar was found as well. Forensic evidence indicated, however, that it was a wild cougar — it hadn’t been neutered, had not been declawed as a captive cat likely would have been and had porcupine quills in its subcutaneous tissue, indicating that it had been in the wild for quite a while.
But the part of the story that really caught the attention of biologists was the fact that the Connecticut cat was a bit of an marathoner. If this one 140-pound cougar made it 1,500 miles, did that mean that other wild, wandering cats could be elsewhere?
McCullough said the cat likely was an anomaly, and its dispersal was far beyond what had been expected or documented. But he admitted that the cougar’s movements have illuminated a new reality that can’t be ignored.
“I think that you’d have to say it makes us pause and maybe think more seriously. I can’t deny that,” McCullough said. “It just simply amazes me that this animal makes this movement.”
Jakubas said the Connecticut findings have created a new template that he and other biologists must pay close attention to.
“For me, personally, I’m going to take it a little bit more seriously when somebody calls [to report a cougar sighting]. I think that’s the natural reaction of anybody,” Jakubas said. “I’m no longer going to operate under the assumption that for the known cougar populations that we have in the United States, Maine is too far away for an animal to naturally disperse.”
So, wild cougars may actually be here in Maine. They may have walked here from Minnesota … or Wisconsin … or South Dakota.
Jakubas and McCullough agree on the question that must be asked next, even if that is true.
“Have others, or will others make similar movements?” McCullough asked.
Jakubas said that’s an essential part of future study of cougars.
“Even if a single animal disperses into Maine, it still needs to find a mate and it still needs to have kittens to have a population,” Jakubas said. “Unless it breeds you’re not going to have a population of cougars and it won’t persist.”