As the first anniversary of the Connecticut Cougar's death approaches this summer (June 11), I'm still stunned by the facts of his truly fantastic life. Identified by DNA as originating in South Dakota, the Connecticut Cougar left hair or droppings across the watery Great Lakes landscapes of Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York before leaving the ultimate evidence, his dead body, on a Connecticut highway. Clearly, that cat could swim.
Having researched cougars for decades — people called me \"that cougar woman\" long before the name took on its current lurid meaning — I knew that this almost magically elusive cat species appears in unexpected places at inopportune times. But a 140-pound fit, wild, 4-year-old male cougar from the Black Hills on a Connecticut highway nonetheless seems as outrageously improbable despite the fact that his historic journey from the West to the East was scientifically documented.
Native throughout North and South America when Europeans arrived, cougars —also known as mountain lions, puma and panthers— continue in patchy populations across the western United States, but are officially extirpated in the East.
The Connecticut Cougar traveled nearly 2,000 miles, three times farther than the record for the species. I feel an abiding sorrow that he did not survive such a valiant search for sex, which is what he was likely doing. Despite their independent habits, cougars are as addicted to social networks as humans, sending excretory rather than electronic signals.
There couldn't be much scent remaining in the East. By the early 1900s, cougars were persecuted down to rare individuals in remote hollows of the Adirondack and Appalachian mountains. Wildlife agencies have traditionally ascribed the dozens of cougars confirmed across the East over the last half-century as escaped or released pets.
If one wild cougar can be recorded making this extraordinary journey, it's possible that others of this secretive species may be moving without leaving any trace. It's already well-established that some western cougars move eastward. In the last decade, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Illinois have all confirmed cougars killed or photographed in places where they haven't been seen in a century. Inexpensive trail cameras have opened up wildlife science to citizen participation, valuable despite the perennial photo hoaxes of western cougars portrayed as eastern that go around the Internet.
Even if other males make it here, though, females usually stay close to home. Some biologists doubt that cougars can build viable populations in the East without human help, such as reintroducing a few females where a male is known to roam.
Cougars were once integral to life here. Does that give them a right to return? It is possible that cougars could thrive again in parts of the East, especially the Adirondacks and Appalachians, where large swaths of public lands were purchased in the 20th century to restore forests nearly destroyed by unregulated logging, and there would be some benefits.
Overwhelming evidence shows that top predators are critical to maintaining an ecosystem's health. The rapid spread of Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks; millions of dollars in annual vehicular collisions with deer; and widespread eating of forest regeneration, are all being demonstrably caused by overabundant deer browsing.
Cougars, which prefer deer for dinner, aren't the full answer to this problem, but studies out West show that they help keep deer populations at stable levels, allowing both cougar and human hunting while sustaining healthy deer numbers.
But cougars also challenge human tolerance in a primal way. Hunting alone, cougars rush from behind cover, and can easily eat people and livestock. They attack people so rarely that the risks are far less than getting hit by lightning, although some people might find lightning more appealing.
Experience on Western ranches shows that most depredations can be avoided through the management of livestock and people. Millions of people in Western states live successfully with cougars, albeit because they have to as subdivisions invade cougar habitat.
Returning cougars offer an opportunity to rethink our relationship with nature in the ravaged forests of the Eastern United States.
Since the Connecticut Cougar made headlines, cougar sightings — the bane of wildlife biologists because there's rarely any physical evidence involved — have increased dramatically. Just last week I got an excited call from a neighbor, here in the Appalachian Mountains of western Virginia, that yielded photos of dog tracks. Other reports proved to be a dead deer, a dead house cat and a video of a dog. People see what they want to, either out of fear or hope.