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Cougars in New England

1-15-16  cougar tracks  022Are there cougars/mountain lions/pumas/panthers/catamounts (all common names for the same species) in the Northeast? There have been many sightings in every New England state, but official Class 1 confirmation (body, photographs or DNA) only in Connecticut (2011), Massachusetts (1997) and possibly Vermont (1994-mixed DNA results). It depends on whom you talk to, but the consensus of most wildlife biologists is that there may not be a breeding population yet, but they are here (some thought to be of captive origin). There is no question that cougars are extending their range eastward. Through DNA analysis a cougar killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011 proved to have come from the Black Hills of South Dakota. It had traveled about 2000 miles to the East Coast over 2-3 years.

A recent sighting by a friend had me out on snowshoes recently, trying to find traces in the woods where she had had an excellent view of what she identified as a juvenile cougar crossing the road in front of her car. The pictured tracks are what I found and followed. They are definitely cat tracks! Further investigation revealed several sites where parts of a deer had been cached, with typical (of a cat) sheared deer hair (see photo insert) evident. Unfortunately, there was no scat to be found, so adequate DNA wasn’t available for analysis, and thus, it is but one of 50 to 60 reported-but-unconfirmed cougar sightings that Vermont gets each year. It may be officially unconfirmed, but there is no question in my mind which species of cat I was tracking. (Thanks to Squam Lakes Natural Science Center for cougar photo op.)

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26 responses

  1. Tara Johnson

    Awesome post, Mary! Here’s to hoping their population grows up here!

    January 15, 2016 at 8:26 am

  2. Great photo of the tracks! Would love to hear sometime why the sheared hairs are typical of cats.

    January 15, 2016 at 8:26 am

    • Cats typically shear hair from their point of entry into their prey, in order to avoid eating hair, Maria. Carnivores, including canids and canines, as well as bears, weasels and raccoons all have carnassial teeth (molar and premolar teeth modified for shearing flesh (and hair) by having cusps with sharp cutting edges). To my knowledge cats are the only ones that typically shear hair, but there may be others.

      January 15, 2016 at 9:23 am

  3. Diane

    Pretty amazing to travel 2000 and live.

    January 15, 2016 at 8:27 am

  4. Massachusetts Wildlife magazine had an excellent article on the puma presence/absence controversy. You may be able to contact them about obtaining back issues here: http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dfg/dfw/publications/massachusetts-wildlife-magazine.html

    Thanks for another terrific entry, as always! – Hugh

    January 15, 2016 at 8:31 am

  5. April

    How big are those paw prints? I’m on the lookout! Thank you Mary!

    January 15, 2016 at 8:47 am

  6. Dianne Rochford

    >

    January 15, 2016 at 9:14 am

  7. David

    Nice tracks! It would be most helpful to include an object of commonly known size (a quarter, pencil, car keys, etc) next to them in the pic.

    January 15, 2016 at 9:32 am

  8. Thanks for this post Mary. A fascinating topic! I hope it is true. I too would love to hear more about hair shear. How does that happen? Also, in my recent research (attempting to protect bobcats in NH!) I’ve learned bobcats can be quite pale in color, especially in winter. Could these be bobcat tracks? Possibly a large bobcat that she saw? (Although the presence of a long tail would certainly rule that out)

    January 15, 2016 at 9:36 am

    • Hi Susan,
      Cats typically shear hair from their point of entry into their prey, in order to avoid eating hair, Maria. Carnivores, including canids and canines, as well as bears, weasels and raccoons all have carnassial teeth (molar and premolar teeth modified for shearing flesh (and hair) by having cusps with sharp cutting edges). To my knowledge cats are the only ones that typically shear hair, but there may be others.

      And my friend DID see a VERY long tail, and it was 75′ from her!

      January 15, 2016 at 11:07 am

    • p.s. Thanks for all you’re doing for the bobcat in NH!

      January 15, 2016 at 11:07 am

  9. johnranta

    Very interesting report, and great photos (except it’s hard to get a sense of scale). Those are clearly cat prints. I posted a link to your story in my blog – nhmountain.wordpress.com.

    January 15, 2016 at 9:53 am

  10. johnranta

    Where exactly was this?

    January 15, 2016 at 9:54 am

    • Vermont. That is all the eye witness wishes to reveal.

      January 15, 2016 at 4:31 pm

  11. Kathy

    Did you take any pictures with a scale to tell what size the tracks are? they look like bobcat to my unpracticed eye without anything there to tell me the size.

    January 15, 2016 at 9:56 am

  12. Need a scale. that’s definitely a cat print, but could be bobcat if too small. Did you submit the hair to the state? Don’t submit it all! Can you email me regarding this? Thanks! admin@ndws.com

    January 15, 2016 at 10:06 am

  13. janetpesaturo

    What state was this in? And as others asked, do you have a photo of the tracks with something in it for scale?

    January 15, 2016 at 12:26 pm

  14. Brad Wheeler

    Hi Mary,

    As always, I love reading your Naturally Curious postings. I’ve long hoped to see a cougar in the woods here in VT. About 5 years ago I was shown a photo taken by a woman in So. Burlington of what certainly looked like one sitting at the edge of her lawn. She and her husband (whom I believe both to be experienced and objective observers of the natural world), saw it regularly from inside their house. They thought it had a den in an area of exposed bedrock just slightly into the woods.

    Isn’t it likely that the cat you described in today’s post will return to feed on the meat it has cached? Is there an opportunity here to set up some cameras at these locations? I’d love to help with something like, if you were interested in pursuing it.

    Best regards, Brad Wheeler

    January 15, 2016 at 4:35 pm

  15. linda shelvey

    amazing post today!! mary, did you back track this cat? hope you have someone watching your back while looking at the deer caches! i’m a believer!!

    January 15, 2016 at 6:33 pm

  16. Ed Sharron

    Fantastic! Great photos and exciting news! Our deer herd could use a little culling.

    January 15, 2016 at 6:38 pm

  17. “Nice bobcat tracks! Cougar kitten feet are different proportions–toe to pad to space between…”; so says mark Elbroch, and I would rather agree.

    January 15, 2016 at 6:43 pm

  18. Great post, Mary! For any who are able to get to Pittsfield, MA on Saturday, 2/6/16, 7-9 pm, Vermont tracker Susan Morse will be giving a presentation, “The Cougar Returns to the East.” I got an email announcement (from the Berkshire Environmental Action Team and Trustees of Reservations) at the same moment your post came through, so felt compelled to share.

    I’ve been following the cougar’s historic decline and controversial recovery since the mid-1970’s when, as a young exhibit planner at Boston’s Museum of Science, I tried to marshall a rewrite of an historic label on a case with “the last cougar shot in VT.” It was to no avail, since I couldn’t get state or federal wildlife biologists to acknowledge there was any possibility of cougars in the northeast, despite a number of reported sightings around that time. Hoping for a Year of the Cougar, confirmed!

    January 15, 2016 at 7:04 pm

  19. There have been sightings in our area of western MA, but as you say, unless you have some hard evidence, it is open to much speculation.

    January 15, 2016 at 7:34 pm

  20. Chris

    In reference to Cherrie’s comment above, I believe that Susan Morse is giving the same presentation Wed the 20th in Grafton, Vt. I think it’s at the Nature Museum. And, excellent post, Mary!

    January 15, 2016 at 10:39 pm

  21. Eric

    Sure look like bobcat tracks.

    January 17, 2016 at 5:32 pm

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