The Hippo


Jul 21, 2019








Photo by Linda McCracken at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center.

N.H. cougars?
Residents allegedly spy mountain lions; state officials deny existence

By Ryan Lessard

Evidence of New Hampshire mountain lions, also known as cougars, pumas or catamounts, has been out of reach for more than a century, leading U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to write the eastern species off as likely extinct. But continuous alleged sightings of the big cats are raising doubts about their presumed extinct status.
State perspective
Bloggers and amateur researchers are collecting data on mountain lion sightings, some as recent as early July. But state officials are skeptical.
Pat Tate is the wildlife biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game who fields all the reports of cougar sightings in the state. He checks all physical evidence submitted, such as DNA and photographs, but as long as he’s been on the job nothing has been conclusive proof that mountain lions live in the state.
“To date, the last situation where there was evidence of the mountain lion occurred in the 1850s,” Tate said.
And he points out that the variety of mountain lion that existed in New Hampshire was the eastern mountain lion. If someone sees a mountain lion in these parts, Tate concedes they may be seeing their western cousins wandering in search of food and a mate.
Males are sometimes known to travel hundreds of miles, like in 2011 when one from South Dakota traveled about 2,000 miles eastward through several states until it was killed on a Connecticut freeway. In that case, authorities had DNA evidence from multiple states to track its movements and confirm it was the same male.
Eastern cougars died off from deforestation, hunting and the decline of the deer population. But now that the deer population in the Northeast has rebounded, there’s plenty of friendly habitat for a cougar population. The strong rebound of the bobcat population is evidence of that. In the 1980s, there were an estimated 100 to 150 bobcats. That number is now about 10 times larger, according to a recent UNH survey.
Tate says it would take a while for western cougars to put down roots in the state and start a local population.
“Interestingly, mountain lion expansion is controlled by the rate of expansion of females,” Tate said. “The females are lagging behind by hundreds of miles.”
And he said the chances females have already arrived are extremely small.
Of the photographs Tate receives that are claimed to be of mountain lions, he says the majority are of eastern bobcats or domestic housecats. 
Tate says most who report sightings are untrained in telling the differences between cougars and other big cats native to the region. For instance, bobcats have shorter tails with coats often spotted, while mountain lions have long tails and wider noses and facial features more closely resembling the African lioness. Cougars are also about three times as long and about twice as tall.
But Marlow resident Linda McCracken said state officials are quick to discount reports from reliable sources.
“A lot of these people that have reported things to me are people who are good observers, like artists or police or military, hunters, etc. People who would know what a big cat would look like...,” McCracken said.
Aside from seeing a few herself, McCracken has been tracking mountain lion sightings for the past 15 years from people across the state, logging more than 3,000 sightings going back decades. She has also logged about 400 sightings in Vermont.
And some people will describe the animal perfectly and not even know that they’re describing a mountain lion, according to McCracken.
She said she’s noted clusters of sightings around southwestern portions of the state, but that they have occurred virtually everywhere in the state except in the mountains. She thinks this may be because there are fewer humans there to see the cats.
McCracken agrees some of the sightings may be of migrating western cougars making their way through New York and Vermont.
“But I do believe they’ve been here all along,” McCracken said. “I’ve got things back from the ’30s and ’40s that people have seen and there are still reports coming in from the same locations today.”
McCracken said cougar sightings dropped off by the ’80s and ’90s but rebounded by the early 2000s.
Perhaps McCracken’s most compelling evidence is from tracking the cats’ behaviors through statistics. Despite the difference in the number of cases between New Hampshire and Vermont, McCracken says the percentage of the cats seen walking, running or sitting have been very similar. For instance, in 23.7 percent of the sightings in Granite State, the cougars are seen crossing a road or a backyard. In the Green Mountain State, it’s 22.1 percent.
But the lack of hard evidence is giving new meaning to another of the big cat’s names: ghost cat. 
As seen in the July 23, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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