Thanks to the so-called Milford mountain lion, which wandered east from South Dakota only to end up as SUV bait on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in June, Puma concolor now can be considered as among the reportable species of fauna in Connecticut.
Also known as cougar, puma or one of about 60 other common names, the presumed presence of mountain lions in the state is a story that just won't go away. Just a few weeks ago, several citizens of East Haddam, including an animal control officer for the town, claimed to have seen one. The reports have not been verified by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
It took heavy-duty genetic testing by federal scientists for DEEP to certify that the lion killed in Milford was indeed a truly wild animal and not an escaped pet, which is the standard explanation for mountain lions seen in the Northeast. Genetic trace evidence showed the cat was the same one tracked by biologists on a great trek of 1,500 miles from its western home.
One genetically documented lion and a stream of alleged sightings over the years beg the question: Do mountain lions inhabit Connecticut? The answer depends on how one defines "inhabit."
Here is how DEEP Commissioner Paul Esty put it after genetic tests traced the Milford lion to its western origin:
"The confirmation of a wild mountain lion in our state was the first recorded evidence in more than 100 years," Esty said. "This is the first evidence of a mountain lion making its way to Connecticut from western states."
He then qualified his statement by adding, "There is still no evidence indicating there is a native population of mountain lions in Connecticut."
He was correct. A single documented animal, or even several, do not a native breeding population make, to paraphrase Esty's qualification. In the absolute, a native species is one with a viable interacting population. In other words, one that procreates where it lives.
"If we had a small resident population of mountain lions it would be easy to document," says DEEP wildlife biologist Paul Rego, whom the agency calls upon to answer questions about the species. He notes that DEEP receives many reports but, the Milford lion excepted, no confirmations. On the other hand, he adds, "There are many negative confirmations."
Mountain lions need considerable space to support a viable population, with the average breeding range for a male about 200 square miles. Smaller female territories may overlap the male's. Northern New England has sufficient space and, although the mountain lion situation there is as iffy as it is here, a lion with a kitten was reported a few years ago in Maine. Even so, Maine's state wildlife agency considers lions extinct there.
Whether or not Connecticut has sufficient space for mountain lions remains an open question. Considering that wild animals do not recognize political boundaries, ranges of lions in Connecticut could include adjacent areas of New York and Massachusetts. Like coyotes, moreover, mountain lions can survive in close proximity to highly populated areas. California lions prowl brushy canyons within sight of the Rose Bowl. Studies in California show that the cats easily traverse corridors of open space through suburban or even urban areas.
Lions, especially males, do tend to wander, searching for new habitat, generally covering no more than a hundred or a few hundred miles, not the 1,000-plus-mile range of the Milford cat. According to Lisa Rullman of the Cougar Fund, an organization based in Jackson, WY, that is dedicated to protecting the species, individual wandering is not the same as species dispersal.
"There's a big difference," Rullman says, between loners on the move and expansion of a breeding population.
Nevertheless, mountain lions seem to be increasingly marching eastward from their western range. States such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, where biologists, like those in Connecticut, once talked of escaped pets and mistaken observations, now are reporting that young males are turning up with increasing frequency. Unlike coyotes, which expanded eastward as a cohesive population, the migration of the mountain lion seems to be mostly a same-sex affair. However, the same was true of moose as they began to turn up in Connecticut not that many years ago and now we have a breeding population.
Genetic research first reported in 2009 indicates that the mountain lions that once inhabited New England and were believed to be extirpated were the same subspecies as that roaming most of western North America. Generically, the so-called "eastern cougar" subspecies never existed, according to the new studies. If mountain lions from the west were to repopulate the eastern states, they would not be replacing a vanished subspecies but reclaiming their old stomping grounds.
I have been keeping up on cougar sightings since the 1960s when I was a curator at the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society), based at the Bronx Zoo. While there, I was able to see for myself photographs of footprints from New Jersey that our mammalogists identified as belonging to a mountain lion. While a curator, I had a hand-reared mountain lion kitten in my home for a time. I suspect that on occasion, a mountain lion has passed near my home in Killingworth, and not very long ago, maybe more than once.
A few years ago, after a woodsman I know told me of hearing a lion calling in the night, I heard it myself from my bedroom. Last winter, I found tracks in the snow over my garden and scat in the woods at the edge of my property. I know enough about tracks and scat to have been a consultant for the National Audubon Society's guide to animal tracks. I believe the droppings and prints I saw were left by a mountain lion.