So you think you saw a cougar at CT?


This happened about ten years ago, or even more.

After covering a meeting in Kent, I returned home in the evening. Near the Kent-Warren border, something crossed the road in front of my car.

Not a deer. Not a coyote. Too big to be a bobcat, I thought, but a big cat with a long tail.

My God, I thought… a cougar? A catenary? A ghost?

But it was dark. I had my dipped headlights on. I was tired. I saw the thing for maybe two seconds.

After thinking about it for many years, I concluded: I and my lying eyes don’t know what it was.

That’s why I’m both sympathetic and a skeptical Robert when new mountain lion sightings pop up, as they do in the state every year or two — the latest being in Woodbridge.

We know it can happen. In 2011, a car ran over a cougar on Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford.

But that was the last confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Connecticut.

As with the Woodbridge sighting, mountain lion sightings since 2011 are just what people have seen or think they have seen. Despite the ubiquity of cell phones, no one clicked on a photo.

This puts the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in the unenviable position of being the opponent, the killjoy, the skunk in the garden. People say they’ve seen a mountain lion. DEEP wants proof.

“I think I would call it a challenge,” Jenny Dickson, director of DEEP’s wildlife division, said of her mountain lion assessment duties.

It’s not that the state doesn’t want to have another mountain lion, Dickson said.

“First of all, we love wildlife. Why wouldn’t we want to see something as cool as a cougar? ” she says. “Second, think about the funding that would be available to study cougars if we had them in the state.”

But, Dickson said, DEEP proceeds based on science and evidence. This is missing with all the mountain lion sightings that occur.

The evidence could come from nature cameras, which many groups and individuals have set up to see what is wandering around. The 1,600-acre Great Hollow Nature Reserve and Ecological Research Center in New Fairfield has such cameras.

But the reserve’s executive director, Chad Seewagen, said there were no pictures of mountain lions there.

“We never had any on our cameras,” he said.

Nor, has anyone else.

There is also the problem of fatalities on the road.

Florida is the only state in the eastern United States with a population of mountain lions. Florida is an endangered species, with perhaps only 200 to 230 of the big cats roaming the state’s 67,755 square miles. Yet there are about 25 panthers killed by cars each year.

Connecticut has only 5,543 square miles. There are many roads and many cars on these roads. But aside from the 2011 murder on the Wilbur Cross, there have been no other confirmed puma car incidents in the state.

Tim Abbott, director of conservation and Greenprint for the Cornwall-based Housatonic Valley Association, said he had heard numerous allegations of mountain lion sightings over the years.

He’s also heard claims that DEEP doesn’t want to acknowledge their existence because there’s another endangered species to deal with.

But the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern mountain lion extinct in 2011 and removed it from the endangered species list. Therefore, Abbott said these claims disappear.

Abbott said if cougars breed in the state, they’ll do well here. Connecticut has plenty of wood for cover and plenty of whitetail deer to eat. But, he said, that’s not happening.

Abbott acknowledged that western mountain lions have huge ranges. It’s conceivable, he said, that like the 2011 puma, which made a two-year trip to Connecticut from South Dakota, others might occasionally turn up here. But he said the chances of seeing one are “infinitely small”.

So why do people see cougars? Because, like me, they want it.

They are large and beautiful predators. They used to live here before we deforested the state and rooted them out. They are rare. To see one would be even rarer.

Here’s the catch. Many bobcats are in the state today. People who see one for the first time can make the leap to the catamount.

“I totally get it,” DEEP’s Dickson said. “But we need science to prove it.”

Contact Robert Miller at [email protected]


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