Apr 23, 2014
How come we don’t?
There’s a distinct lack of physical evidence when it comes to mountain lions. John Harrigan, Colebrook farmer and newspaperman, has some explanations for why nothing has turned up yet. He’s compiled a list of “How come we don’t?” questions.
How come we don’t find mountain lion-killed deer carcasses in deer yards, which are natural areas where deer congregate during winter?
Harrigan has an answer for that. For one thing, few people actually visit the state’s deer yards, of which there are a few major ones, along with mid-sized and small, pocket yards.
“How many get visited by a professional?” Harrigan asked. “And if they are visited by a professional, what are the odds they’d go at the right time to find a carcass that can be demonstrably confirmed as a cougar-killed deer?”
Officials would need to know what to look for in terms of how the animal was killed, along with tracks, which would probably be covered up by snow or melted away. Not to mention that a carcass isn’t going to last long. There’s a host of animals, such as fox, crows, ravens and rodents, just waiting to feast on a carcass. Harrigan figures the chances are low that a professional would come upon a carcass at the right time.
Still, from a Fish and Game perspective, it hasn’t happened.
How come we don’t have road-killed animals?
Mountain lions are most active at night, which is when the fewest drivers are on the road. That might be true for other regular road-killed animals like deer, but Harrigan pointed to cats’ agility and wariness. It’s not impossible that a big cat could be hit by a car, but it could be the least likely animal to be hit, he said.
However, even in Florida, where there are fewer than 200 Florida panthers, the animals are still killed by cars, said biologist Eric Orff.
How come we don’t have pictures?
If someone has spotted an animal they believe is a mountain lion, they’re probably excited, nervous and anxious, which may all contribute to a lack of clear photographs, officials agree. But what about game cameras? Hunters and wildlife lovers are placing motion-activated cameras all over New Hampshire’s woods in an attempt to photograph and document animal movement. So why no mountain lion photos?
“There’s a large network of deer hunters with trail cameras,” said Patrick Tate, a biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game. “They document every species in the state. They document people’s domestic animals in the woods. They document everything we know to exist today. It’s my belief that if mountain lions were here, at some point in time ... trail cameras would have documented the animal.”
Harrigan believes there are game camera photos of mountain lions out there. The best one he’s seen is one from Sharon. Lots of people have seen that — many experts and many non-professionals. The verdict is not unanimous. Most people believe it is a mountain lion, as Harrigan does. But some think it’s a deer. He has two other photos he said are OK but inconclusive.
For Fish and Game’s part, the few photos they have received have either turned out not to be mountain lions, or been taken out of state.
“I think there are better trail camera images out there,” Harrigan said.
In modern times, it’s very difficult for any species to live in a region without detection. In states out west where mountain lions are known to reside, they leave lots of signs of their presence, including scat, tracks, kills and roadkill.
“They leave very distinctive signs, and we’ve never been able to document those types of signs here,” Orff said.
It’s a conspiracy
John Harrigan has spent more than three decades following mountain lion sightings in New Hampshire.
Many people fervently believe that mountain lions do exist in New Hampshire. In fact, there are a number of conspiracy theories floating around meant to explain why officials won’t admit the big cats are here.
The one that comes up the most is that Fish and Game wants to cover up the existence of the animal because if mountain lions were here, they’d have to manage an endangered species. Harrigan disputes that notion. To his line of thinking, if officials were to document the existence of a real population of mountain lions in New Hampshire, the federal government would show up in the Granite State with a “dump truck” full of money. If mountain lions were to be documented, it would be more likely that officials would be rejoicing, rather than trying to cover it up.
“Our department, it won’t affect us if mountain lions are here, just as we’re not affected if they’re not here,” said Patrick Tate, a Fish and Game biologist. “Either way, it’s not going to cause any funding issues....”
Another theory that has grown legs is that officials want to cover up mountain lions’ existence because if they were here, officials would have to cordon off huge sections of woodlands from logging to protect them. Sure, the state would probably have to make some restrictions for areas where cats have dens, but it would hardly be a widespread shutdown of logging activity. In the western part of the country, where mountain lions are thriving, hunters still get to hunt and loggers still get to log, Harrigan said.
There are also plenty of theories regarding how cats got here. There’s the militant wildlife advocates theory. That goes that wildlife lovers, who aren’t up for waiting for government to turn its slow wheels, deliberately release mountain lions in New England under the cloak of darkness as a way to re-start the population on their own.
“I love that scenario,” Harrigan said.
The escaped pet theory is one officials turn to, and that’s with understandable reason, to explain sightings. Whenever an actual mountain lion has been documented, it turns up with South American DNA, suggesting the animal either escaped captivity or was deliberately released in the wild.
But Harrigan wondered who these pet owners are.
“I would challenge your readership,” Harrigan said. “Have they ever heard of anybody who had a pet cougar? … Show me someone.”
The Internet is a vast resource, however, and officials point out that it could be possible to procure a big cat as a pet, however ill-advised.
In 1978, John Harrigan received a call from a librarian in Stark. The woman told him she’d seen a mountain lion.
“She was a very steady woman who raised a family and was helping out at the library,” said Harrigan, a Colebrook farmer, newspaperman and New Hampshire Sunday News columnist. “She was the kind of person who had no reason to fabricate a story. What did she have to gain? … I would not have wanted to be the person who told her she didn’t see a mountain lion.”
The woman was driving along Route 110 from Berlin to Stark when a large animal jumped out onto the road followed by two little ones. She recalled the animal was the size of a German Shepherd but looked like a cat. She immediately drove to the library and checked the zoology books, before deciding what she had seen was a mountain lion, Harrigan said. That was the first of a fairly steady stream of seemingly strong reports Harrigan received. He said he typically got between a half dozen and a dozen solid reports each year.
The mystery of the mountain lion continues today, but that mystery is accompanied by another predator —one that howls.
Wolves and mountain lions elicit emotions. They’re apex predators, ones who used to make the Granite State home. They’re scary, equipped with sharp teeth, and in the case of the cat, sharp claws as well. They’re fascinating and mysterious. They’re formidable animals. And, depending on who you talk to and who you believe, they might be back in New Hampshire once again.
Wolves, certainly, appear to be right on the doorstep of the Granite State, if they haven’t already crossed the threshold. Biologists expect wolves to make their way south from known populations in Canada, if they haven’t already. Wolves have been documented in Maine and only 20 miles from New Hampshire’s border in Quebec.
Biologists documented a wolf near Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts a few years ago. DNA analysis found the animal, which had been shot and killed, to be a true wild wolf, with origins either in Canada or the Great Lakes region.
“With that species, it’s very possible they’ve seen a wolf,” said Patrick Tate, a biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game. “Unfortunately, the only way to confirm the animal is a wolf would be to take a piece of it for a genetic sample.... That’s the issue with wolves. A large eastern coyote would look like a small wolf, and a small wolf would look like a large eastern coyote.”
“They have a social structure within their pack,” Tate said, adding that for one reason or another, packs will shun certain members. “Those single animals end up going across the landscape and they’ll just go for long, straight distances. … They can go anywhere in New England. And New Hampshire is right in the middle of that.”
To date, biologists haven’t been able to document the wolf in New Hampshire. Tate gets lots of pictures of large dogs, coyotes and wolf-dog hybrids, which can be owned as domestic pets in New Hampshire.
“The wolf is a complicating species because a number of issues come up,” Tate said. “But it’s absolutely possible that someone has seen a wolf in New Hampshire.”
Mountain lions are another story altogether. There’s so much mystery with the animal. The state hasn’t had a confirmed mountain lion sighting in more than 140 years. New Hampshire Fish and Game receives more calls for mountain lion sightings than any other animal. And time and again, the animal in question turns out to be something other than a mountain lion — a bobcat, domestic dog or a coyote perhaps — or officials are unable to turn up physical evidence. And Fish and Game needs physical evidence. No matter how credible the sighting, if there are no tracks, scat, photograph, or mountain-lion-killed deer carcass, their hands are tied.
Take an incident in Barnstead more than two years ago now: A Fish and Game employee spotted what was believed to be a mountain lion, but officials were still unable to document the animal through physical evidence.
Tate concedes a number of people believe the big cat that goes by a variety of names, such as cougar, catamount, panther and puma, is here. A quick Internet search reveals message boards full of people sure they’ve seen mountain lions — or wolves — in New Hampshire. Tate said an equal number of people believe otherwise.
“We don’t get into that debate,” Tate said.
The nearest known viable populations of mountain lions are in the Dakotas and southern Florida.
The Cougar Network (www.easterncougarnet.org), a nonprofit research organization, tracks confirmed mountain lion sightings, of which there have been a handful in the Northeast, none in New Hampshire. Mountain lions and wolves were extirpated from the Northeast by hunters and because most of the Northeast was cleared by loggers. Wolves met a similar fate in New England. Adult male mountain lions typically have ranges covering between 25 and 500 square miles.
For close to 30 years, Eric Orff, a former Fish and Game employee, was the record-keeper for all mountain lion sightings in New Hampshire. He drew up the form that today Tate, or whoever else answers the phone, relies on to record information from someone calling in a sighting.
“People would describe a mountain lion to a T,” Orff said. “As if they were in their living room looking at one, length of the tail, color, the ears.... It was always amazing to me how they would have such good descriptions.”
And so the mystery of the mountain lion continues. But the wolf — the wolf is at the door. And if either species officially gets back to New Hampshire, well, moose and deer are officially on notice, as both animals would make moose and deer regular menu items, as they would rabbits and beaver.
As Harrigan and biologists both said, “the dinner table has been set.” So why would we be surprised that these animals would return? There is ample prey and habitat. Harrigan has followed mountain lion sightings in New Hampshire for more than three decades. A recent report in the Montreal Gazette revealed that researchers have discovered mountain lions living throughout Ontario. Perhaps the cat is getting closer.
“I really don’t care whether people believe the cougar is here,” Harrigan said. “To me, I know what I know and I think what I think. I have nothing to gain from it. … It’s a great story, though.”
While wolves are dramatically more likely to appear in New Hampshire, the number of reported wolf sightings isn’t even close to the number of mountain lion sightings, Orff said. Officials would get a handful of wolf sightings each year.
“Here’s an animal that probably occurs in New Hampshire on occasion, and here’s an animal that probably doesn’t occur here — it just adds to the mystery,” Orff said.
It’s left Orff perplexed.
“It’s a complete mystery to me,” Orff said.
Neither animal stalks its prey or the state border without controversy.
Introducing the wolf
There are some who believe the only way to restore wolves to the Granite State is to physically do it — to release wolves into the wilderness. But many see that as problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are the emotions tied to releasing such an efficient predator, an animal that is unequivocally at the top of the food chain, if not for, well, us.
In Yellowstone National Park, biologists reintroduced gray wolves to the park in 1996 and the animals are faring well today. The reintroduction worked in a park setting where hunting isn’t allowed. Trying the same type of reintroduction in New Hampshire could prove troublesome, warned Christine Schadler, a canine expert from Strafford.
“Generally reintroductions of large predators are so controversial that the predator is not likely to survive much beyond the reintroduction,” Schadler said.
“As the wolf population got bigger and it moved outside [Yellowstone], guess what, people got ticked off and wanted to hunt them,” Schadler said. “Now the wolves are de-listed ... a lot of states are allowing wolf hunts. Things aren’t going well for the wolf.” And Schadler doesn’t want to see a similar fate in New Hampshire.
Another unresolved question: What type of wolf to reintroduce? Presumably, all wolves in North America are subspecies of the gray wolf, canis lupus, but it’s not that simple. As Schadler put it, there’s a bit of a “genetic soup” at play between gray wolves, red wolves and the eastern coyote. The eastern coyote is much larger than the western coyote, due to the eastern variety’s influx of wolf DNA. Somewhere along the line, coyotes mated with red wolves, which are smaller than the 120- to 130-pound gray wolves that inhabit Yellowstone, Canada and Alaska today.
So there’s the gray wolf, the animal most people probably picture when they hear the word “wolf.” Then there are the Great Lakes wolves, which have a heavy dose of gray wolf DNA, along with red wolf and coyote DNA. And the eastern coyote is thriving here and it already has wolf blood in it. So the question would be, which wolf?
There are thousands of wolves in Canada and typically, wolves become larger the farther north you travel. It would make sense, then, that most of the wolves along the New Hampshire border would be a smaller, red wolf type, rather than the gray wolf.
What would happen if a single red wolf ventured into New Hampshire? It would find itself in a sea of eastern coyotes, which are acting wolf-like, as in they’re bigger and they often form packs. Red wolves and coyotes will mate, and it would only further add to the genetic soup, while contributing to an already-bigger breed of coyotes, Schadler said.
Still, there are gray wolves making their way through New England. They could be coming from Nova Scotia or other sources. Schadler said Maine has recorded a number of gun-killed gray wolves.
“[Wolves] are attempting to come back on their own,” Schadler said. “There have been numerous credible sightings of wolves and their signs.... Some of these animals make it as far south as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and the thinking is that these wolves are coming from a sourced population in southern Canada.”
“There is no wolf population in New England today,” Schadler said. “If there is a vacancy in an ecosystem, nature is going to try to fill that.”
Let them come back on their own
The Great Lakes regions of Wisconsin and Michigan are two places where wolves have come back naturally, and the hunting community has been tolerant of that, Schadler said. About 25 years ago, there was a movement to reintroduce wolves into Michigan, but hunters responded negatively. Schadler said federal intrusion ticks people off. But natural recovery is more likely to be accepted by hunters and the public.
The Great Lakes wolf is often called an eastern wolf. Initially, biologists believed the Great Lakes region could handle 300 to 400 wolves. It turns out the ecosystem could support at least double that amount.
“They’ve shown to be a little more adaptable than people thought,” Schadler said.
It’s not all rosy in that region, as there have been some instances of wolves killing livestock. But Schadler said wolves get blamed when the reality is that wolves don’t kill anywhere near the amount of livestock that domestic dogs do. Schadler said the possibility that wolves would kill livestock is remote compared to the chances the neighbor’s dog does.
Wolves would no doubt take their share of deer in New Hampshire. The deer population in New Hampshire is strong at more than 80,000 animals, but hunters would no doubt be concerned with how wolves could impact the herd if they were to return. Schadler said the deer population in Michigan and Wisconsin is healthier than it’s ever been. She said two long-term studies back that claim up.
Some would be concerned that wolves pose a threat to people. Of course, the animals, particularly in pack form, are formidable, but Schadler said wolves don’t hunt people, and attacks have been incredibly rare throughout human history. Typically, she said, when there are incidents involving coyotes or wolves and people, it’s because people are leaving food out, either intentionally or not. People think they’re helping animals or they want wildlife around; maybe they want to be friendly with the animal. Big mistake. If an animal becomes habituated to getting food from people, it can’t discriminate between who wants to feed it and who is terrified. That’s the beginning of how coyotes end up in backyards taking family pets, Schadler said.
The best protection from wolves is educating them to fear us, Schadler said. If someone encounters a wolf or a coyote, he should yell and scream to scare it away.
If wolves do make it back, look to the forest — “Pretty much wherever they want,” Schadler said. “I think there’s great habitat in the North Woods. There’s great habitat in the White Mountains. Pastureland is not such great habitat. The southern part of New England is not ideal. They could absolutely make a living here. I think New Hampshire is still 80 percent forest. Wolves are creatures of the forest, much more than coyotes.”
There are parts of this state that would make fantastic habitat for wolves, with ample prey species, such as deer, moose and beaver. Wolves will prey on large game, like moose, right down to small game, like turkey and rabbits, Tate said.
“We have a number of prey species that they can go after,” Tate said.
Some say as soon as wolves enter a new territory, they kill all the coyotes in the area. That’s what happened in Yellowstone National Park. Gray wolves, which are more than 100 pounds, were introduced, and, yes, they killed coyotes in large numbers, but those were the western coyotes, which typically don’t weigh more than 30 pounds. The eastern coyote weighs 35 to 60 pounds.
“So let’s imagine that some wolves actually make it back into New England and they’re hunting deer, they’re behaving like wolves behave,” Schadler said. “Wolves operate in packs, and generally speaking, without pack members, wolves can’t prey on what their primary species is, which is moose. … So without pack members, individual wolves would be likely to take deer. They’d be likely to take whatever animal it could. It would scavenge.”
That’s where it gets interesting. New England has these “unusual coyotes.”
“These coyotes are part coyote and part wolf,” Schadler said. “New England has thousands and thousands of coyotes. These coyotes are large and they’re territorial. The question is, how is the wolf going to make it where the ecosystem is dominated by large coyotes?”
Coyotes typically have six to eight pups, all of which would be half coyote and half wolf. Those pups are probably going to find another coyote to mate with, but when they do, they’ll pass along a big dose of that wolf DNA, Schadler said.
“What it will do is it will invigorate, which is a term in the genetics world,” Schadler said. “It will bolster and invigorate the coyote population with a new kind of DNA. And then they will possibly produce even larger coyotes, and coyotes that are even more likely to pack up and prey on deer.”
“Coyotes are so dominant in the ecosystem,” Schadler said. “I can’t just talk about the impact of wolves, because the impact of wolves is mitigated somewhat by the presence of these coyotes.”
Beyond that, Schadler wondered why it was necessary to bring in another predator anyway, particularly since the eastern coyote has essentially filled the wolf’s niche in New Hampshire. True, coyotes aren’t taking down moose and so moose don’t have a natural predator to worry about in New Hampshire, but people are hunting moose. As Schadler said, the moose population is hardly overrunning the state. In fact, Orff said the moose population has tumbled in recent years due to winter tick infestations, which can be tied to milder winters.
Every organism is trying to figure out how it can reproduce. That’s what life boils down to. Wolves and coyotes come into heat at the same time. The likelihood of a wolf finding another wolf is remote, but the likelihood of a wolf finding a coyote is very high, Schadler said.
You saw what exactly?
John Harrigan can’t believe how many people in New Hampshire are surprised to hear that mountain lions and wolves used to live here. And what about the woodland caribou and the musk ox, and probably the wolverine at one time as well?
“It’s just news to a lot of people,” Harrigan said.
He blames that lack of knowledge in wildlife history on the fact that it isn’t taught in schools.
Tate doesn’t physically respond to wolf sightings. With wolves on the federal list for threatened wildlife, he’d forward physical wolf evidence to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The problem with wolves is that it takes an animal carcass to perform the appropriate DNA analysis. Officials are essentially waiting for a carcass to show up, not that they want people shooting wolves. In cases in other states, hunters or residents have shot wolves believing they were coyotes, Tate said.
It’s extremely difficult to gauge the size of an animal, so smaller animals can appear large. A true wolf is probably going to weigh in excess of 100 pounds, and a large coyote is going to top the scales at about 60 pounds. Everything in between is kind of a gray area in terms of identification.
When it comes to mountain lions, the story goes well beyond Joe Public spotting what he thinks is a mountain lion, only to be dismissed when he calls Fish and Game.
First of all, mountain lions don’t care where state lines and boundaries are located.
“They’re going to go wherever they’re going to go,” Harrigan said.
Orff said Fish and Game certainly wasn’t trying to cover up the existence of the animal.
Mountain lion reports
What’s confounding to officials and the public is that mountain lions are distinct animals. The cats range in color from light gray to tan or cinnamon brown, weigh up to 200 pounds and can stretch up to 11 feet from nose to tail. They have powerful hind legs that can propel them 45 miles per hour. The cats can jump 18 feet vertically and 45 feet horizontally. A lion will climb high into trees with a deer in tow. If someone spies a deer in a tree, there’s really no question what put it there, said Iain MacLeod, executive director of the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness, during an interview in 2009. Mountain lions are much bigger than bobcats, which typically top out at 35 pounds, though some bobcats do grow larger.
Harrigan admits the subject of mountain lions used to get him riled up. Today, though, he views it as fun. Harrigan understands Fish and Game’s stance on the issue. If there’s no physical evidence — photographs, scat, footprints, deer carcasses or mountain lion roadkill — officers can’t just go on people’s words. Not to mention that Fish and Game doesn’t have enough staff to follow up on every sighting. He said he knows they are doing the best they can.
Biologist Patrick Tate has a form that he fills out as he speaks with people who are calling with a mountain lion sighting. The form includes a list of questions, date and time of sighting, and location. He asks: What was the animal doing? How long did the person see the animal? In the midst of the answers, Tate is looking for a number of descriptors to indicate what the person possibly saw. It’s physical evidence that Tate is really after — scat, tracks, a photograph.
“Then I assess the situation to see if it warrants going out to gather further evidence,” Tate said.
About 90 percent of mountain lion reports result in no physical evidence. Physical evidence is the key. Even if a sighting is credible, it’s likely going to be difficult for biologists without something physical to go on.
“I’m not calling anybody a liar, but we’ve never been able to find evidence ... to prove that they occurred here,” Orff said.
“There are certain ways a person could see a mountain lion,” Tate said. “There’s a low probability of one migrating from the Midwest to New Hampshire, but it is possible. Other states have documented escaped animals, animals that escaped or were released. They have South American DNA, they’re part of the pet trade.”
If an animal is an escaped pet, it probably wouldn’t last long anyway. Many are de-clawed and would lack the training required to survive in the wild. It is illegal to possess a mountain lion in New Hampshire, officials said.
“The best thing is to have digital images for me to look at,” Tate said. “If someone believes they saw something, generally they’re very excited, and sometimes what they recall isn’t exactly what they witnessed.”
Tracks are helpful, particularly if there’s a ruler next to them. Scat is also helpful, since that can be examined, but it can be easily misidentified. Fish and Game has sent out five or six scat samples for DNA analysis only to have the results indicate they were from a domestic dog, a raccoon or a bobcat.
People exaggerate track sizes and they exaggerate the size of the animal itself. A lot of times supposed mountain lion tracks end up being those of wild or domestic dogs. A solid chunk of misidentified mountain lions are bobcats, Tate said.
In the case of the Barnstead sighting in 2009, Fish and Game employee or not, there was never any physical evidence, Tate said. So it’s not about the person who saw something.
“We had no physical evidence to go off of,” Tate said. “We highly suspect it was a mountain lion, but we don’t know for 100-percent certain. The animal has not been witnessed in the area since.”
Harrigan himself has made a hobby of tracking mountain lion sightings. He doesn’t claim to be a wildlife expert, but he grew up in the woods and considers himself an open-minded observer of the state’s wildlife scene.
“I only deal with the good reports,” Harrigan said. “Inevitably, the good reports are the same. It’s an animal about the size of a German shepherd, tawny in color, an unbelievably long tail ... and cat-like movement. That all adds up. There’s no other animal that could be out there that fits that description.”
Harrigan said he wouldn’t expect people who aren’t familiar with animals to be able to confidently identify animals. That’s why the reports he focuses on are from farmers, loggers, hikers and hunters — outdoorsmen and women.
Harrigan said a state Fish and Game conservation officer reported a sighting in the 1970s along Route 3 in Pittsburg. In East Colebrook in the 1980s, Norma Wetzell and her neighbor Harold Davis watched a big, adult cougar come out of the woods to pounce on mice, Harrigan said, adding that despite the lion’s size, big predators rely on rodents as a big part of their diet. In the late 1990s, Harrigan said, former Littleton police chief Louie Babbin, Babbin’s wife, and two friends riding in the same vehicle on Interstate 93 in Franconia saw a cougar run across the turnpike.
The public relations game
Harrigan figures Fish and Game could handle the public relations of it a little better. Biologists, who get many, many calls for mountain lion sightings, can unwittingly denigrate people who call in to report a sighting, he said. First of all, Fish and Game asks a lot of questions, which they only do to determine how credible a sighting is.
“I can’t fault them for being a little jaded,” Harrigan said.
Harrigan frequently speaks to crowds about a variety of topics, but without exception the topic of mountain lions or wolves comes up. In a crowd of 100, he figures about 12 to 15 people respond if he asks people to raise their hands if they’ve seen a mountain lion. He says he tells them they’re in good company.
“Officialdom tells poor Joe or Jill Public that they saw a raccoon or a fisher cat or a pine marten or even a coyote, a big domestic dog,” Harrigan said. “That’s what comes across as insulting. I’m not saying that biologists and wildlife officials mean it that way. I just wish they could be more diplomatic, and say something that saves face....”
“I wish the response could be ... ‘We’ve received many reports over the years of an animal that certainly resembles the description of a mountain lion... Evidently people are seeing something that could well be a mountain lion...’” Harrigan said. “That’s the caveat, but then the statement would continue, ‘However, we’ve found no solid evidence so far that we can use to say for certain that these animals are here. If that does happen, we certainly don’t have any idea where they’re coming from.’ That’s not asking much. That’s all I’d like to see happen.”
For Fish and Game’s part, the history has been that whatever people saw turns out not to be a mountain lion. And again, the science is saying that mountain lions don’t live here and aren’t particularly close to New Hampshire.
Most people don’t get too many opportunities to take in wildlife in an ideal setting. Usually, a sighting is from afar, and frequently, the animal is moving rapidly.
“In those situations, people’s imaginations can play tricks on them,” Tate said.
Tate remembers hitting the brakes on his car because he spotted a bobcat in a field. Upon further review, the animal was an eastern coyote.
“I swore it was a bobcat,” Tate said.
Tate doesn’t receive all the reports. Sometimes secretaries take the sighting information down. Tate said he gets reports of sightings every two weeks or so. When he asks how long someone saw the animal, it’s typically for a second or two.
While the science says mountain lions aren’t here, Tate isn’t saying don’t call Fish and Game if you believe you’ve seen the big cat. It’s important from a public safety standpoint, to determine whether the animal is an escaped pet, a released animal or a wild, dispersing animal, he said. Wolves are important to document for the same reasons, but particularly with respect to the federal endangered species act. It’s important to document a possible range expansion, Tate said.
Fish and Game would receive 100 calls for mountain lion sightings in a year. Orff tried to find trends in the reports. If there had been a mountain lion hotspot, officials would have investigated. But he was getting just as many sighting calls from the Manchester area as he was from Pittsburg or Lancaster. The reports come from all over the state. He did notice that the department received more calls in his last decade on the job than it did during his first 20 years as the record-keeper.
Wolf reports come in less frequently but they’re also from throughout the state.
A large percentage of the reports Harrigan has received are in ledgy, mountainous areas. The sightings are taking place on the slopes of ridges and mountains. Many sightings come from the southwest portion of the state. A number of sightings come from Conway and North Conway, along with the north and south slopes of the White Mountains. Harrigan gets a number of reports from the eastern side of Coos County.
Mountain lions easily travel 50 miles in a day or so, and with New Hampshire a small state, it wouldn’t be difficult for a big cat to make its way through New Hampshire and right out. That’s part of why it’s difficult for officials to find physical evidence — cats are on the move, particularly during mating season or when they’re in search of food.
Harrigan remembers sticking pins in a big map of northern New Hampshire to document sightings. Mountain lion sightings seemed to increase during certain times of year. Mountain lions are nocturnal, but in late June through early September, many sightings were happening during the day.
“They don’t like to be out in the daylight, and if they are out in the daylight, they like to stay in the shadows,” Harrigan said. “They don’t like to get out in the open. They’re not afraid of much, but their hunting strategy is predicated on being stealthy and unseen....”
Harrigan, who has never seen a mountain lion himself, noticed the sightings were happening in circles of five to seven miles.
“It was a big light bulb,” Harrigan said. “It’s got to be a mother who is doing stuff she doesn’t want to do because she’s desperate to feed her kits. She’s out there, a hard-working mother....” There were three such areas of activity that Harrigan noticed: the Monadnock-Jaffrey area, the Bartlett-Conway area, and another one in Colebrook. That was years ago, but Harrigan said he thought they represented denning females.
The table is set
Regardless of how much physical evidence there is, it’s clear to biologists that New Hampshire’s habitat and prey species would allow either big cats or wolves to live here.
The more than 80,000 deer in the state would be an inviting entree for both specie, as would moose. Wolves would certainly have an impact on an already strained moose population, Orff said. “I certainly expect the wolf to show up sooner or later,” Orff said.
“The table has been set for decades, in terms of protection and in terms of abundant food, and in terms of rejuvenation of habitat,” Harrigan said. “Plus, there’s irrefutable evidence that mountain lions have hung on in ... southern Quebec and the Gaspe [in Canada].”
Perhaps the mountain lion will officially follow the wolf to the Granite State one day. Until that time, the mystery continues.
|®2014 Hippo Press.