Friday, December 5, 2008
Two separate mountain lion sightings remain unconfirmed
Wild cougars, also known as mountain lions or pumas, are thought by many to be extinct in the eastern United States, but twice during the past year there have been unconfirmed sightings in Carlisle. In both cases, there were no photographs or other documentation. One sighting was in the southwestern part of town near Towle Field and the second observation was last month near the state park.
According to Conservation Administrator Sylvia Willard, if one or both were actually mountain lions they “could easily have been passing through,” though she doubts that Carlisle harbors a resident mountain lion. She noted, “There have been no reports of slaughtered deer,” which is their primary prey.
The lion without a roar
The cougar is the fourth-largest species of cat after the tiger, lion and jaguar. Unlike the other big cats, the mountain lion does not roar. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website (www.fws.gov/northeast/ecougar), in addition to deer, cougars hunt small animals such as porcupine. Adults are a uniform brownish color. They can grow to be six to eight feet in length, counting their long tail, and usually weigh 100 to 140 pounds. Females have a home range of between five and 20 square miles, while males wander over larger areas, typically up to 25 square miles. In the wild, cougars live about eight years; the first 18 months to two years are spent with their mother.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that eastern mountain lions disappeared a century ago. However, according to the website, there have been a few verified sightings in recent years, including scat found in Massachusetts in 1997. In addition, across the eastern United States,
“the public, including wildlife biologists have reported thousands of unverified sightings.” Last year U.S. Fish and Wildlife began a scientific review of the status of the eastern cougar, to determine if it exists, its range, and whether it is a separate subspecies or is genetically identical to mountain lions in the west or Canada.
According to Lisa Capone, press secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, the “last known record of a mountain lion in Massachusetts was in Hampton County in 1858.” While Capone was not aware of any confirmed sightings in Massachusetts, she said the state does receive unconfirmed sightings “a few times a year.” One was reported in Shirley in October, but follow-up investigation by the state environmental police was unable to provide confirmation. Capone says that people often mistake a bobcat or large dog for the endangered cougar. The most recent Carlisle observation seemed to have a tail longer than a bobcat or most dogs.
It was seen in a backyard at about 11 a.m. on October 29 and the observer described it: “It was a very large cat, very uniform orange-ish tan in color, with a long, curving tail that dipped up just before it would hit the ground. It was right at the edge of the woods and open area,
and by the things that it was near, was about five feet in length, not including the long tail.
“At first it was standing still, sort of angled away from me, and then turned its head way around and looked toward me, then walked a little more towards the woods, stopped and turned looking side to side again before it continued into the trees where I lost sight of it. It had a very plain face, and it’s hard to describe, but it moved smoothly, and I could see the muscles working through its back and legs.”
Changing wildlife populations
Are cougars venturing into eastern Massachusetts? Other wildlife once restricted to remote wilderness, such as the fisher and coyote, are now becoming more common. Laura Hajduk of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife says that four fishers were caught during trapping season in Carlisle last year. She says their increasing numbers are due to the maturation of the forest and the abundance of prey species such as squirrels and chipmunks. Small mammals are found in artificially high numbers in the suburbs, she said, because of the popularity of birdfeeders. Whether mountain lions are wandering through town occasionally is still unproven. But who knows what interesting creatures are sharing this section of the planet?
(For more information, see the web site: www.fws.gov/northeast/ecougar and click on: “eastern cougar comments sought.”) ∆
© 2008 The