Sightings in Greenwich and around state fuel residents' search for answers about mountain lions
by Frank MacEachern, Staff Writer, greenwichtime.com
When a possible mountain lion sighting in Greenwich was reported in early June of last year, many in town took the news with trepidation.
Peter Alexander was excited.
"I think it's fabulous that mountain lions would return here," the Pemberwick resident said.
Alexander lives along the Byram River, whose watershed provides a natural superhighway for wildlife that has slowed in recent decades, he said. Alexander wants to see that traffic rev up once again, and one of the creatures he'd like to make the trip more often is the mountain lion.
Not only does Alexander believe mountain lions are present in New England, he wants to see them re-established in the state.
"I would encourage the concept of bringing back more species, including mountain lions and wolves," he said. "They do get bad press, including eating children sometimes, which is pretty bad. I am not trying to downplay the tragedy, but they are part of the natural environment."
Continued reports of mountain lion sightings across the state have sparked massive interest in the animals, long thought to be extinct in New England. A dedicated group of big-cat enthusiasts is pushing for the state's legislators to investigate the reports.
Alexander is one of hundreds of people to have signed an online petition asking the state legislature to hold a public hearing on mountain lions -- also known as cougars -- in Connecticut following a 2011 filled with reported sightings in the state, including one in which a mountain lion was seen stalking the grounds of Brunswick School's King Street campus last June.
Some of the signers, like Alexander, welcome the presence of the animals, while others dread the stealthy predators' place among us.
Debate continues to rage between state officials, who maintain that there are no native-bred mountain lions in Connecticut, and those who claim the opposite, pointing to numerous sightings over many years.
BELIEVERS AND SKEPTICS
Bo Ottmann, a Canton resident and founder of Cougars of the Valley, a group dedicated to tracking mountain lion sightings, is a true believer.
"People need to be aware we have a top predator living amongst us," Ottmann said. "Mountain lions are being habituated. They are feeling comfortable living in our communities."
As of this week, 220 people had signed the petition on the Cougars of the Valley website, ctmountainlion.org. Some signatures include reports of sightings. Others offer opinions on the pros and cons of mountain lions in the state.
The website includes a map of the state showing dozens of reported sightings, from the Gold Coast to the Quiet Corner in the northeast. And that doesn't count the hundreds of mountain lion reports the state receives every year.
State officials believe the mountain lion seen in Greenwich on June 5 is the same one that was struck and killed on Route 15 in Milford on June 11. Following tests on the dead mountain lion, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said the animal likely originated from South Dakota.
Ottmann is skeptical that the mountain lion made the voyage from the upper Midwest to the East Coast.
"Did it come directly from South Dakota? We will never know," Ottmann said. "Its bloodline came from South Dakota, that's all I know."
Ottmann is confident mountain lions are breeding in New England, possibly through a mixture of western mountain lions and a native eastern population that somehow survived even after they were declared extinct.
Alexander said he could see that scenario, or simply that mountain lions are traveling through the area after making their way from Canada or the Midwest. Either way he's thrilled about the prospect.
"The fact that we may have a population and may have always had a population, I am totally pumped up about that," he said.
State officials counter that there is no native mountain lion population.
"We have not seen any credible evidence to back up reports of mountain lions," said DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain, referring to reported sightings other than the one in Greenwich.
Ottmann said the department is too quick to dismiss the reports.
"Every time a person calls them, they are being told they are not seeing what they are seeing," he said.
The author of a book on mountain lions admits there may be a breeding population of cougars in this part of the continent, but said they would be in isolated areas of northern Maine, or in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec. Robert Tougias, whose book "The Quest for the Eastern Cougar" was published last September, said there is no evidence to support any breeding population in Connecticut and southern New England, even if it seems plausible.
"Some people just flat out believe there is an established cougar population living in southern New England and wildlife officials are covering it up and don't want to acknowledge it," Tougias said. "It kind of makes sense, but when you look into it, it kind of doesn't hold up too well."
Tougias, who lives in Colchester, said he first became intrigued by mountain lions while growing up in Massachusetts. That interest was heightened when, while living in Vermont, he discovered large paw prints near his cabin that he believed could have been made by mountain lions.
While he discounts a native population in southern New England, Tougias believes there could be some breeding occurring between either escaped or released mountain lions of South American origin and those that have traveled here from the Midwest.
DNA recovered from mountain lion hair snares in eastern Canada has shown the animals are genetically linked to western or South American mountain lions, he said. The South American creatures have either been released or escaped into the wild, Tougias said.
Any male mountain lions passing through Connecticut are looking to find a mate and establish a territory, Tougias said. Such animals are usually from the South Dakota area, he said.
A burgeoning population in the Midwest is forcing males to move farther away from their original regions, Tougias said. But while the males will travel great distances, females don't, leaving the lovelorn male mountain lion searching farther and farther afield.
Tougias was surprised when the mountain lion appeared in Connecticut last year. He and others in the mountain lion field believed they would eventually make their way to the East Coast, but not so quickly.
He, like Alexander, supports the idea of reintroducing mountain lions, in part to act as a brake on the increasing population of deer, which mountain lions hunt.
Ottmann is opposed, contending that a few mountain lions would have little impact on the deer population. There is also the concern about public safety.
Reported sightings often spike after initial news reports when people who see something unusual believe it is a mountain lion, Tougias said.
"The animal is automatically going to be assumed to be the most wild and the most rare and what they have read about, and that is the cougar," he said.
SUPPORT FOR A HEARING?
The four members of Greenwich's state delegation have mixed feelings about the idea of a committee hearing on mountain lions.
"I don't think there is enough evidence of mountain lions that demands the need for a hearing," Rep. Lile Gibbons, R-150th District, said.
Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-36th District, is also cool to the idea of legislative hearings.
"I think to jump right in and have a hearing may be an inefficient use of our time," he said. "What would be the point of the hearing? We can't legislate the cats out of the state."
Cougars of the Valley members could meet with co-chairs of the public safety committee to present their evidence, Frantz said. He also suggested that DEEP could write a short report on the topic to be made available to the public and to legislators.
Rep. Livvy Floren, R-149th District, said that holding a committee hearing is expensive and time consuming.
"I would have to see if it is a cost-effective measure," she said.
The issue of mountain lions is best left to the professionals in DEEP, Floren said.
The most receptive of the group is Rep. Alfred Camillo, R-151st District, who said he is open to a committee hearing on the matter.
"I would certainly keep an open mind to it because I am fascinated by it," said Camillo, who doubts that a hearing would occur anytime soon.
"I think as far as having hearings right now, if I am the only legislator who is interested in it, that answers your question," he said with a laugh. "But I think there is something out there."
Schain said DEEP would be open to a legislative hearing.
"We welcome full discussion of the subject of mountain lions, whether or not they are present in Connecticut," he said.
THE CHASE CONTINUES
Following the June 5 sighting in Greenwich and another reported sighting on June 12 on North Street, Audubon Greenwich closed its sanctuary as a precaution. No evidence, such as droppings called scat, or photographs established whether a mountain lion had been on John Street, authorities said.
Audubon Greenwich spokesman Jeff Cordulack said there is little talk about mountain lions by visitors who stop in at the center.
"It has largely been forgotten, but every so often we are asked if we have seen any more mountain lions," he said.
Ottmann, who operates a landscaping business, said he became interested in mountain lions after hearing a talk four years ago by William Betty, a Rhode Island resident who researches mountain lion sightings.
Now the two mountain lion enthusiasts team up for lectures. They will speak at Audubon Greenwich on March 24.
Ottman said his mountain lion quest is exciting.
"It's the chase," he said. "It is kind of like gold fever. It's a lot of fun."
-- Staff Writer Frank MacEachern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-625-4434.