Shadows in the Woods

cougar

Do mountain lions inhabit Maine? It depends on who you ask.

By Paul J. Fournier
Illustrations Courtesy Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

What were we — two employees of the state fish and wildlife department — doing skulking in a hot, smelly chicken barn on a warm late-summer day when we could have been in our air-conditioned offices? We were hunting — cougar-hunting. Not with guns, but with binoculars and long-lensed cameras.

With me on the second floor of this empty building formerly used for raising poultry was Regional Wildlife Biologist Gene Dumont. For months, Gene’s office had been receiving reports of sightings of a cougar in the area around Bristol, on the coastal peninsula south of Damariscotta. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) receives dozens of reports of such sightings each year, and makes attempts to track them down. Usually, they turn out to be cases of mistaken identities: coyotes, dogs, fishers.  But there was something about these persistent sighting reports that lent them more than casual interest.

The woman who lived in the farmhouse by the chicken barn reported to Gene that she had seen this animal several days in a row, always following the same behavior. It would approach a large pine tree across the road from her house, climb into the tree, and lie there on a branch for extended periods of time. She said once it even showed up when she and another woman were sitting on the lawn, and paid them no attention.

To Gene, this seemed like the ideal opportunity to prove or disprove once and for all: Are there really cougars in Maine? That’s when he invited me to bring my cameras, and we decided the best location from which to hide and watch without being observed by the big cat was the stinky barn.

And, of course, despite our long, sweaty hours inhaling the rank mustiness of that barn, the cat chose not to show up. Later in the day Gene climbed up the pine tree and found several hairs caught in the bark where the animal had lain. Analysis at a lab concurred they were indeed feline hairs, but could not conclusively identify them as cougar.

Cougars (also called panthers, pumas, mountain lions, catamounts [cat of the mountains] painters, Indian devils) have officially been extinct in the eastern United States since at least the 1920s or ’30s. Yet reports of sightings occur dozens of times each year. Some are hard to dispel.

I first began hearing reports of cougar sightings back in the 1950s when I was living at Brassua Lake. One evening three of our “sports” had been driving the road from Jackman to our camps. They arrived late in the evening, brimming with excitement. At the time, the Jackman road was a narrow gravel path, running over twenty miles through uninhabited wilderness. These guys excitedly related to me that they had seen a mountain lion cross the road near Smiley Hill. They had had a good view of it in the car headlights, and described it in minute detail: the rounded face, tawny color, black-tipped tail. They were pretty darned convincing; I was half-sold. Strange, though, that these guys from “away” (from New York as I recall), were the only ones I’d ever heard of seeing a lion in the area. I had frequently driven that road, and the local residents drove it routinely. People were always in the woods, logging, hunting, traveling to and from work, etc. None had ever reported seeing a big cat. Yet these three, on their once-a-year drive, had.

Convincing though they may have been, they lost their credibility with me when, the very next day, they drove the few miles from my camps to Rockwood — and on the way, spotted a second cougar! That was simply too much . . . they seemed perfectly sober, and hallucinatory drugs were unknown to the area at the time, so I don’t know what they thought they saw, but my trust was shattered. My skepticism level has been elevated ever since then.

The second series of cougar sightings began reaching me after I’d sold the camps and moved to the coastal Maine area when I took the job as sports editor for the Bath Daily Times (nowThe Times Record). I began writing a lot about outdoors stuff (my first love), and this began attracting calls and visits from people with similar interests.

One person, who became the most frequent of these visitors, was a gentleman from the area who began dropping into my office every few weeks for lengthy chats (sometimes too lengthy when I was up against printing deadlines!). But always, he had some new, exciting news — especially relating to reported sightings of cougars, or of their signs. I quoted him a time or two, which only served to encourage him. Jim (not his real name, for reasons evident later) was a well-educated professional man who had traveled widely and was extremely well spoken and exuded credibility.

But though he talked a good game, he never seemed to come up with anything tangible. Time after time he would show up with breathtaking tales of surefire evidence of the presence of cougars — tracks, scats, kills, etc. He was always on the verge of going out to meet the people who had made these discoveries (he was well plugged-in to an apparent network of cougar-sighters), and, as soon as he confirmed the evidence, he would be sure to call me so I could go with him with a camera to document the finding and interview the finders.

Somehow, this never seemed to happen. He would drop out of sight for a few weeks. When he showed up again, he always had a new, wonderfully positive sighting to report. But when I asked about the previous sure-thing report, he would become evasive, as if he’d completely forgotten about it. I soon learned to consider his visits as just that: visits with a pleasant fellow.

Of course, during the years I was at Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, I heard numerous reports of lion sightings. The folks who reported these sightings were adamant about what they had seen: cougars. They were dogmatic in their belief. Even though most seemed to be amateur observers: housewives, children, “city people” from away. Seldom were they seasoned woodsmen, trappers, guides, game wardens — the people who spend much of their lives in the woods.

But there was an exception or two.

One of the most credible sightings that came my way was made in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway State Park. A couple of park rangers were in a boat traveling in the Thoroughfare, a long, narrow stretch of water connecting Churchill and Eagle lakes. The water level was down, exposing a strip of clear space between the water and the brush.  Suddenly they spotted down near the water a sizable brown animal, which they were convinced was a cougar. On their approach, the animal suddenly turned and dashed for the brush. One of the men had a video camera and snatched a quick shot of the animal just as it disappeared into the bushes.

At last, here was proof positive of the existence of a cougar in Maine!

I was told the video was being transported to me so we could examine it in my video lab. I awaited it with, as they say, bated breath.

The video arrived a few days later. A group of us — including senior biologists, wardens, and the just plain curious — gathered in the video studio to examine the film. This was in the days of VHS half-inch videotape — much lower in quality than today’s digital. The fellow’s camera had apparently been one of lower quality. It had been shot under poor light conditions, from a rocky boat, by an unsteady hand. And it was just the briefest of shots, a few frames only. It was blurry, shaky, grainy, and poorly focused (no discredit to the shooter; best he could do under the circumstances).

The studio was equipped to run the video at various speeds, including stop-motion for frame-by-frame examination. We ran it over and over, at every possible speed, and examined each frame. Sure, we saw a sizable, dark-brown animal (dark perhaps because it was wet), dash madly for the brush. Some thought they could distinguish the long, thin tail, others could not. There was one frame where, just as the animal ducked into cover, that did, indeed, look like there was a tail lashing sideways. But perhaps not. Unfortunately, it was not convincing. It was not possible to get a positive, conclusive identification.

The subspecies known as eastern cougar, Puma concolor couguar, is similar to but separate from the western cougar, Puma concolor missoulensis. While the western and Florida panthers are not only holding their own but increasing in numbers and range, the eastern cougar remains officially extinct as it has been for nearly a century. Oh, scientists admit there have been and probably still are a few cougars loose in Maine. But they insist these are not eastern cougars. They are cats that have been deliberately released, or escaped, from captivity as pets. And they are mainly South American cougars, which are apparently easily obtained and favored in the pet trade. Exact numbers are unknown but it is estimated there are many caged cougars in Maine. Gene Dumont believed the Bristol cougar that kept visiting the farmer’s wife was of this origin.

There is, reportedly, one small population of cougars close to Maine. Dr. Bruce Wright, of New Brunswick, has written widely about what he says is a remnant population of cougars in that province. In a pamphlet released by the Minister of the Environment Information, Canada, Wright has written that “the eastern cougar, once thought extinct, is managing to breed . . . it is not a hazard to man’s interests in any way in the large, unsettled areas of this province.”

Isn’t it possible that cougars so close by would occasionally visit Maine? Very likely. The border between the two is primarily the St. Croix River. It could be easily crossed, especially in times of low water, or in winter over the frozen ice. In fact, Washington County in eastern Maine accounts for many of the reported cougar sightings. Could they be Canadian aliens?

The cougar once ranged widely throughout both north and south America, wherever its chief prey, deer, were found. The early European settlers began waging war on it soon after arrival, as it attacked their livestock — and occasionally, people themselves, according to some reports.

In Maine, I’m aware of only one such reported attack on a human.

One of the earliest settlers in the area of Andover in western Maine, Silvanus Poor, was interviewed in his elder years by his niece, Agnes Blake Poor, about his reminiscences. He described the incident as follows: Two trappers on the Magalloway River (in the remote corner of Maine where the borders of New Hampshire and Canada meet) separated to check their trapsets. When one failed to return a search was started, said Mr. Poor, “by following his tracks in the new-fallen snow. They soon found the tracks of some large creature of the cat kind that appeared to be following him, and then the spot where he had been killed and almost eaten up, supposed to be a catamount by the tracks.”

Another hunter-trapper who operated long traplines for many years in much the same area was J.(Joshua) G. (Gross) Rich. He was not only a noted woodsman, but wrote widely about his life in the outdoor magazines of the day (mid to late 1800s). J.G. was not known for modesty, and boasted: “I have hunted over twenty years of my life as a profession, in the wilds of northern Maine. I hunted alone and camped alone many years; have followed hunting lines sixty-five miles long with traps all the way, which took all the week days — I did not hunt on Sundays — through the season. I have killed seventy-three black bears, between fifty and sixty moose, and several hundred Canada lynx, besides caribou, red deer, otters, fishes (sic), fox, mink, martin (sic) and other game. I trapped forty-nine lynx in one season.”

Rich even gives a breathless account of being attacked by a lynx, which he single-handedly captured live, being thoroughly scratched-up in the process. But curiously, not a word about the cougar, which apparently was already exterminated in the area.

Early on, settlers attacked the catamount (as it was popularly called) with guns, dogs, traps. For many years, bounties up to fifty dollars were paid for killed cougars. And concurrently, its ancient habitat was being altered into farmlands and settlements. It has never recovered.

One now-legendary hunter-trapper from more recent times might well have rivaled J.G. Rich for wilderness experience. Al Nugent of Chamberlain Lake, in the Allagash Wilderness region of northern Maine, ran long traplines through that region before roads reached it. He killed many animals over the years — including Canada lynx, bobcats, and bears. During the years I knew him, though he enjoyed talking about his experiences, I never recall him mentioning cougars. That country (unlike now) was over-run with deer, the cougar’s main prey. If they were to be found anywhere, it seems it would have been there.

For many years it was considered great sport in Maine to hunt bobcats with dogs. A bit lucrative, too, as a bounty was being paid on the cats. Also, game wardens routinely went out to deer wintering areas on snowshoes with dogs to shoot deer-killing bobcats. I recall during the fifties when wardens like Norman Harriman, Wally Barron, and others would snowshoe into the big deer yard (wintering area) along Churchill Stream, just over Misery Ridge from my camps, with hunting dogs to shoot deer-killing bobcats. Never heard them mention cougars. (That deer yard, along with numerous others, no longer exists, cut over for its wealth of lumber. (A Maine wildlife biologist once told me: “Every time you see a truckload of cedar posts or fencing go down I-95 out of state, there goes another deer yard!”)

Little wonder that the Maine deer population, following several severe deep-snow winters, is decimated over much of northern and eastern Maine. Cougars, if they did try to exist here, would find slim pickings.

Another seemingly great source, it seems, would be the state wildlife biologists, who routinely make frequent visits to survey deer yards in their regions. In winter, they maintain Winter Severity Index stations in known deer yards, which they several times a week visit to retrieve data regarding high and low temperatures, measure snow depths, and check on the condition of available browse and deer health conditions. While with the department, I often went along with deer biologists like Gerry Lavigne and Bill Noble of the Greenville Regional Office to film these activities. I never saw, nor did the biologists ever mention, any sign of cougars in these “yards,” which since they concentrate deer would seem the most logical place for cougars to be found.

What is the official opinion on the status of cougar in Maine?

There is today no more esteemed and respected scientist with knowledge of the subject than Mark McCollough, endangered species specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, stationed near Old Town. Mark’s credentials are without peer. He has spent time in the West studying cougars — their habits, tracks, and scats. He is no ivory-tower academic snob. Far from it; he has an infectious demeanor and is fast with the quips. Recently, while addressing a public group, he said of the frequent reports of cougars that they were UFOs (“Unidentified Feline Objects”).

He told the same audience that, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Ninety to ninety-five percent of reports of cougar sightings are the mistaken identification of other species of wildlife.”

A statement not welcome to the dozens of folks who adamantly believe they have, indeed, seen cougars.

Recently, McCollough undertook a review of the eastern cougar to report to his scientific peers. His comments: “During a three-year period, USFWS biologists (including McCollough) reviewed all the available U.S. and Canadian literature and held discussions with cougar groups, people who have seen cougars in the wild, geneticists, state agency biologists, Canadian Wildlife Service biologists, and endangered species biologists (from several eastern regions). . . . Biologists reviewed 573 comments received in response to a request for information. They also requested information from the twenty-one states within the historical range of the eastern cougar. No evidence supports the existence of an eastern cougar population.”

The report further states: “We analyzed the best available information and concluded the eastern cougar no longer exists. We believe the subspecies has likely been extinct for almost seventy years. Many people have reported wild cougar sightings in the historical range of the eastern cougar; but evidence of these sightings suggests these animals are other subspecies, often of South American origin, and either escaped or were released from captivity, or are dispersing cougars from growing western populations. The service (USFWS) will now prepare a proposal to remove eastern cougar from the endangered species list.”

Bottom line: If they don’t exist, they can’t be endangered.

So, is there any possibility that cougars will ever again inhabit their old haunts in Maine? The prospect seems dim — especially in view of the drastically reduced deer situation.  Without sufficient deer wintering areas, which deer in these northern climes are dependent upon to get through Maine’s tough winters, there will be scant prey base to support a breeding population. As Mark recently told me: “There are few working deer yards left in northern Maine.” McCollough claims a male cougar needs forty-four deer each year to exist; females with cubs need 113. Plus, they require up to several hundred square miles of range.

McCollough offered one slight glimmer of hope for the future (given a recovery of the once-abundant deer herd). In a note to me: “The Florida panthers are doing very well and have reached carrying capacity of their habitat. More animals are dispersing northward, and one Florida panther was shot in Georgia last year. The Florida panther recovery plan calls for reestablishing two populations of two hundred-plus animals outside Florida in the Southeast. If that occurs, cats will easily travel up the Appalachians. Maybe they’ll be as successful as coyotes at restoring historic range!”

Recently, Florida wildlife officials reported that twenty-four panthers had been killed in 2011, nine due to collisions with vehicles. With a population of cougars numbering only about 150, to have 24 killed in one year is remarkable. Which begs the question: If cougars are in Maine, why haven’t any been found dead — on the highways or in the woods?

Another recent development may throw all of this speculation for a loop. In the summer of 2011, a 140-pound cougar was killed by a vehicle on the Wilbur Cross Highway in Milford, Connecticut. (Residents of that state have been reporting cougar sightings similar to Maine.) A necropsy (autopsy) disclosed this animal had not been declawed and showed other evidence that this was a wild animal, not a released captive. Further study found that this was not an eastern, but a western cougar! And most astonishingly: DNA evidence proved a link to the population from the Black Hills of South Dakota! DNA evidence from scat (droppings) and other data, including hidden camera photos, also proved this cat had traveled through Wisconsin and Minnesota on its long trek east. According to McCollough there was “an exact DNA match with four genetic samples collected in Minnesota and Wisconsin.”

Imagine the dangers and obstacles this animal had to overcome in its thousand-plus miles journey: superhighways, major rivers like the Mississippi and Hudson, only to end its life under the wheels of a vehicle. This individual animal, according to scientists, set a record for dispersal — movement from its original territory.

In comparison, a move from Connecticut to Maine would be just a relative hop and a skip for a roving-minded cougar.

What’s my take on this? I have seen a live cougar in the wild. Not in Maine, but in Wyoming, near Jackson Hole. It was incredible: climbing its way slowly up a hillside across a stream, checking out every clump of bushes, hunting for prey, its long switching tail and feline movements very evident. It was a magnificent animal, well-fitting its natural element.

I may never see one in Maine, but I remain optimistic for the future.

Paul J. Fournier recounts his experiences as a bush pilot, sporting camp owner, Maine Guide, and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spokesman in Tales From Misery Ridge(Islandport Press), the New England Outdoor Writers Association’s Best Book of 2011.

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