by Pete Mauerman
“I think what’s gonna happen is – and it’s just human nature – once somebody gets attacked or has an encounter that they [the United States Fish and Wildlife/Department of Environmental Protection (US F&w/DEP)] can’t cover up…they’re gonna have to do the management plan,” explained Bo Ottman before we entered one of his Cougars of the Valley (CoV) lectures on mountain lions at Ludlowe Middle School in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Ottman’s lecture was sponsored by the Connecticut Audubon Society and was presented by Ottman’s lecture partner, Rhode Island resident Bill Betty, another expert on mountain lions. Ottman, a 40-year-old resident of North Canton, is the founder of the CoV initiative, an organization devoted to researching the repopulation of mountain lions in the Northeast, educating the public, addressing their concerns and expressing the mountain lion’s value as a species.
There have been growing suspicions about mountain lion repopulation in Connecticut; there was the “Milford Cougar” incident back in June when a car hit and killed a mountain lion in Milford, and there have been many reported sightings of mountain lions throughout the state. The state quickly denied the Milford cougar native legitimacy by claiming its origins were from South Dakota, a fact determined by DNA tests, according to state environmental officials. In fact, US F&W declared the eastern mountain lion to be extinct in March of this year, and a mountain lion spotted in Greenwich was said by DEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Frechette to be one that had been released from captivity.
“…the Milford kill was just another classic cover-up of their [US F&W/DEP] laziness to the public,” Ottman said.
Ottman recently called Paul Rego of the DEP requesting the results of the DNA test.
“25 years ago the state denied the presence of black bears, and everybody that called up the hotline would say, ‘I just saw a black bear,’ and the DEP would tell’ya, ‘No it’s just a big dog’. They finally had to admit it about 15 to 20 years later, and now they have a management plan, and black bears are being tagged, and the ones that are troublesome are moved further away from the habitat, and it’s going to be the same thing with mountain lions.”
-Bo Ottman, founder of Cougars of the Valley
A Connecticut map of reported sightings on Cougars of the Valley.
“…the results came back that [there was a] 67% chance that it came from South Dakota,” Ottman explained, but went on to suggest that the DNA test doesn’t necessarily mean the cougar came from South Dakota – it could just mean its bloodline originated in South Dakota.
In comparison to the ongoing battle Ottman fights to convince the DEP that mountain lions are breeding in the Northeast, he recalled how the black bear, now recognized in Connecticut, received similar treatment.
“25 years ago the state denied the presence of black bears, and everybody that called up the hotline would say, ‘I just saw a black bear,’ and the DEP would tell’ya, ‘No it’s just a big dog,” he said. “They didn’t want to deal with it then. They finally had to admit it about 15 to 20 years later, and now they have a management plan, and black bears are being tagged, and the ones that are troublesome are moved further away from the habitat, and it’s going to be the same thing with mountain lions.”
Could it be possible that the western subspecies of mountain lions are making their way east and breeding? It is not as if they are migrating to an inhospitable Saharan Desert ecosystem – according to Ottman, New England is a “country club” for mountain lions. There is plenty of brush cover for hunting, a suitable climate and an endless supply of white-tail deer (a mountain lion’s main food source). Connecticut has one of the highest populations of white-tail deer New England, and every year the population of white-tail deer increase exponentially. According to a 2000 report from the Connecticut Wildlife Division, the population of deer had increased to an estimated 76,344 from 53,955 in 1996.
The increased sightings of mountain lions in Connecticut over the past several years has led Ottman and many other researchers to believe that they are becoming habituated to human territory in both urban and suburban areas.
In an interview, Southport resident Jason Grant, 31, recalled his experience of seeing a mountain lion last November.
“I was driving down Valley Forge Road in Redding, and on the side of the road there was this mountain lion slowly walking into the road, so I slowed down and it ran across the road back into the woods,” he recalled. “So I immediately texted Krista [his wife] and told her, ‘I think a mountain lion just ran in front of my car.’” He remains adamant about the accuracy of his sighting as he claims the mountain lion passed only “10 or 15 feet in front [of the car].”
Ottman asserts that an increased mountain lion presence is both beneficial and detrimental to humans and our environment.
“The whole ecosystem flourishes when you have a top predator living amongst us, trees and rivers will do well, small mammals will do well, even the human beings will do well.”
“When you have nature’s perfect predator, such as the mountain lion, living with us, he controls the whole flow of the food chain,” Ottman expained. “The whole ecosystem flourishes when you have a top predator living amongst us, trees and rivers will do well, small mammals will do well, even the human beings will do well. It’s a proven fact that when you have a top predator living among us the ecosystem flourishes…the downside of having mountain lions is the fear factor, but that’s why we educate them [the public].”
In order for the DEP and US F&G to take action on the mountain lion population, they need physical evidence that the Northeastern mountain lion population is breeding. If it is determined that mountain lions are indeed breeding in Connecticut, then the DEP will be forced to employ a management system that includes educating local officials on mountain lions, designing procedures for handling mountain lions, trapping and tagging, creating population reports, and public education campaigns, all of which involves spending state money.
It’s very costly,” said Ottman. “Every state; you’re looking at half a billion dollars…for initial set-up…you’d have to hire the western biologists to come here [to train local officials].”
“At one point Florida spent $1.3 billion in a single year [on mountain lion management],” Betty added.
Betty’s lecture and Ottman’s organization was informative and gave the audience all the need to know facts about mountain lions, their habits, how to discourage their presence, and protocol to follow if one finds themselves in contact with “nature’s perfect predator”.
However, Ottman assured the audience that they shouldn’t worry too much about attacks.
“They tend to avoid human contact at all costs,” he explained. “They’re going to let their presence be known if they see you and you see them. As far as the mountain lion is concerned, that’s his territory too, just because you bought the property doesn’t mean it’s yours.”
This is the main reason Ottman and his organization educate the public: with the mountain lion’s food source (white-tail deer) being in such close proximity to human dwellings, it is inevitable for mountain lions to come into contact with humans at one point or another.