Cougar migration generates Mass. interest|Richard_F|richard@cfz.org.uk|03/26/04 at 01:55:44|richard_f|xx|0|217.43.51.167|From the Boston Globe:
Cougar migration generates Mass. interest
By Vicki Croke, Globe Correspondent, 3/22/2004

Reading the vivid frontline accounts of the slow and natural mountain lion
invasion that began in Boulder, Colo., in the 1980s in David Baron's "The
Beast in the Garden," it's easy to visualize a big tawny cougar snarling at
you on your own back deck. That hair-raising experience is compounded when
the book reveals that the cats are headed east -- repatriating states such
as South Dakota and Nebraska -- and showing up in states that haven't seen
them in a hundred years -- Iowa and Illinois among them.
Since last July, there have been persistent reports of sightings of a big
cat, perhaps a mountain lion, in the Beverly area. Jim Lindley, the city's
animal services officer, says the mystery remains unsolved. And while
sightings have ceased within the city limits over the last few weeks, there
have been some in nearby Manchester-by-the-Sea.
Not counting such frequent and controversial sightings along the Eastern
Seaboard, Baron, who has reported on science and the environment for
National Public Radio for more than a decade, thinks the big cats could be
in upstate New York within 15 years and in Massachusetts shortly thereafter.
Already cougars, puma, mountain lions, panther, catamount, whatever name is
used, have the widest distribution of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere,
from Alaska to Argentina.
Susan Morse, a tracker and mountain lion aficionado from Vermont, says that
while she might not call their return to this area inevitable, it is
plausible; there is plenty of suitable habitat for the animals in New
England, and plenty of wilderness pathways for their migration in.
And David Weber, who studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey and now
directs North America programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New
York, accepts Baron's theory on mountain lions reaching New York State "as
long as people aren't shooting them along the way." But Tom French,
assistant director of MassWildlife, doesn't think they'll reach
Massachusetts. "I'd love to be able to say it's possible," he says, "but I
just don't think it's going to happen. I think there are just too many
obstacles."
Aside from Florida's small population of mountain lions, most experts
believe the cats do not live anywhere near the East Coast. MassWildlife's
take, according to the state mammal list on its website, is -- "Extirpated;
last known record, Hampshire County, ca. 1858. Recent sight records are
suspicious and unverified." Legitimate sightings that have happened are
assumed to be released captives (pets that got too hard to handle and were
set free -- illegally kept and unlawfully dumped). If and when they get here
in self-sustaining numbers, wildlife experts will have figured out the best
ways for people and big cats to coexist. And Baron, a former Bostonian
transplanted to Boulder, says coexistence is possible.
Figuring that out isn't easy, as he makes clear in his book, which not only
tells the story of the cougars' arrival in Boulder, but also looks seriously
at the larger questions of what wildlife is and how our anthropomorphized
vision of it can get in the way of sound management practices.
Boulder's biggest mistake, according to Baron, was that wildlife officials
stood by and did nothing as the behavior of some cats in the population --
rebounding after years of persecution and bounty hunting -- became brash and
disturbing. They prowled backyards for pets, and stared down humans instead
of fleeing. It was thought that cougars were shy of people, nocturnal, and
elusive. And some officials stuck to that old image.
But this was a new generation of lions that didn't grow up in an environment
in which most humans carried shotguns and traveled with trail-hardened
hounds. The new cougars had no reason to be afraid, and the incidents with
some of them escalated. At the outskirts of the city, where people welcomed
wildlife -- feeding birds and deer alike -- there was a shock in store. "Oh,
look, dear," one woman's visiting mother said to her, as she gazed over her
tea and doughnuts toward the back door. "There's a lion on your porch."
Cougars had followed their favorite prey -- deer -- right into backyards.
"It's a bad idea to feed deer anyway," Baron says in a phone interview, "but
when lions come back, it's a horrible idea." In Boulder, backyards provided
water and highly nutritious foods for deer, which somehow made the cats
change their schedule to become daylight foragers. The cougars found that
family pets were easy targets. First it was little cockapoos and terriers,
but soon the confident cougars went after huskies and Dobermans.
It would take first a near miss and then a tragedy to make Boulder officials
and residents face facts. Surprisingly, most people there wanted the
mountain lions to be left alone, feeling that humans were squatting on their
turf. And of course the trouble always comes, as Baron says in his book,
where "rebounding nature and civilization's sprawl" meet. But, in the
interview, he says, "It's unhelpful to debate who has invaded whose habitat.
We're here now and we need room for the animals, but we need to be
pragmatic."
Morse says that people need to take sensible precautions: "You wouldn't camp
in grizzly territory and open a can of sardines, but we are jogging through
lion country. Our culture is totally unrealistic."
Ultimately, it doesn't work to anthropomorphize the animals as either evil
or innocent, Baron says. The dynamic should be one of respect on both sides.
"The mountain lion is a truly amazing creature," Baron says. "It is
astonishing that in North America we have a cat as large as a leopard. It
really does look like it belongs on another continent."
It does, of course, belong here, but that might take some getting used to.



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