Many on both sides of the cougar debate believe that New England’s natural habitat would benefit from having an “apex predator” in the ecosystem again.Photo Credit : Leigh Love/Stocksy
The last catamount killed in Vermont stands under glass just inside the doors to the Vermont Historical Museum in Montpelier, a hop, skip, and a jump down the block from the statehouse. The animal was shot in the town of Barnard on Thanksgiving Day 1881 by a man named Alexander Crowell. Responding to complaints about a predator eating a local farmer’s sheep, Crowell and a small group of fellow hunters had tracked the big cat through the snow. “[The catamount’s] movements were so noiseless that Mr. Crowell found himself in this dangerous proximity before he was aware of it, and it was only by great coolness and daring that he severely wounded the animal and perhaps saved his own life,” reads a placard attached to the display case. It was his great coolness and daring (either that, or fear) that enabled Crowell to shoot the animal at a distance of “one rod only” (roughly 16½ feet), first hitting it in the leg with his shotgun, then dispatching it with a bullet to the head from a borrowed rifle.
There, too, is Crowell’s photograph, grainy and old: the hunter leaning against a tree stump, his head propped casually on his left hand, elbow to stump, shotgun cradled in the crook of his right arm. Bearded, bowler hat, expression impenetrable behind facial hair and the stoicism of an earlier era. The big cat on the ground before him, motionless, yet somehow still embodying that particular feline litheness, as if, with the flick of its tail, it might bound to its feet and disappear into the woods. But no. The cat is dead. The last catamount in Vermont is finally, officially, certainly dead.
The scientific name for the catamount is Puma concolor. It is also known as cougar, panther, mountain lion, and puma, though catamount is the preferred regional vernacular. Its closest living relative is the cheetah. Its distinctive feature—the one that sets it apart from other North American wild cats—is its tail, which is thick and often as long as its body. The catamount is a creature of stealth and concealment; it stalks its prey, which on the Eastern Seaboard would likely be deer, moose, porcupines, beavers, and domestic livestock. It can run at speeds of up to 50 mph. It is what wildlife biologists call an “apex carnivore,” which means it can overpower pretty much any other creature in its environment—with the exception of an armed human. All of which is to say that if Alexander Crowell wasn’t afraid on that long-ago Thanksgiving Day, he probably should have been.
When I accepted the assignment to write about my quest to uncover the truth regarding the existence of cougars in New England, I had little idea what I was agreeing to. Growing up in northern Vermont, I’d heard stories of sightings, though always a few steps removed from the teller—somebody’s cousin had seen a cougar cross the road on their way home from deer camp up in Canaan (or was it Coventry?), or someone’s coworker’s mother had seen one from the back porch of a summer camp back in ’07 or maybe ’08, and she’d tried to get a picture but this was before she got her first iPhone, and by the time she’d retrieved her camera from the living room, the cat was long gone. I was aware, too, of how a certain mythology surrounding the animal had taken root in Vermont’s culture and even its identity: The University of Vermont’s athletic teams, for instance, are known as the Vermont Catamounts, and their logo features a snarling cat lunging through the cleft of a “V.”
I also had the vague notion that when it comes to cougars, people tend to sort themselves into one of three camps. In the first, there are those such as myself, who’ve maybe heard a few second- or third- or fourth-hand stories as well as official denials from state agencies or professional biologists, and therefore find themselves betwixt and between, neither believing nor disbelieving.
In the second camp, there are those issuing the denials, pointing to the lack of photographic evidence, or the absence of tracks, or the simple truth that many people don’t seem to know the difference between a cougar and a bobcat and a lynx and even, in some cases, a golden retriever.
Finally, in the third camp, there are the true believers—the “cougar truthers,” if you will—the men and women for whom the only logical conclusion (often reached after a significant investment of time, thought, and sometimes money) is that right here, right now, cougars live among us, feeding and breeding and rearing their young, and that suggesting otherwise is sheer ignorance, willful denial, or part of a mosaic of conspiracy. The reasons for this conspiracy vary depending upon whom you talk to, but they coalesce around the idea that wildlife agencies would be inconvenienced by the cougars’ presence, as they’d be forced to respond in ways that would tax their resources. And consider, for a moment, the concern and outright fear an official acknowledgment of such a carnivorous and predatory creature might evoke.
It may not surprise you to learn that I was quite intrigued by this third group. And it was this curiosity that led me to the Old Well Tavern in Simsbury, Connecticut, at a time of day (11:30 a.m.) that does not normally find me ensconced in the dim confines of a drinking establishment. And yet there I was, on a Saturday in early November, crammed into a booth with Bo Ottmann, 48, and Bill Betty, 72, of Cougars of the Valley, the organization that Ottmann founded in 2007 to gather evidence of and alert the public to the big cats living among us.
There was a tin of American Spirit tobacco on the table (Ottmann’s), a laptop (Betty’s), a notebook (mine), and a tumbler of Bacardi and Coke (Ottmann’s again). The tavern was quiet except for some hard-rock music playing on the radio, the murmur of a handful of men at the bar, and us. Ottmann grew up and still lives just minutes from the tavern; his familiarity with the establishment was obvious (after we met in the parking lot, he led me into the building through the kitchen, greeting each of the staff by name). Betty had driven up from his home in Rhode Island. He wore red suspenders and a baseball cap. Having retired from a career at General Dynamics, he devotes many of his waking hours to cougar research, a passion he’s cultivated for nearly two decades.
“What set it off was a National Geographic special on mountain lions in California, right after my daughter and I had two encounters in my driveway,” Betty told me. His mention of these encounters was so matter-of-fact that I found myself nodding along. Two mountain lion encounters in his driveway. Of course.
“Within six weeks,” he continued, “I was getting off the plane in Jackson Hole for a national mountain lion conference. I started asking a lot of questions, and realized there’s only one explanation for the answers I was getting: They are here.”
“How many?” I asked.
“You could have 30 in Connecticut alone. You could have 50—”
“There’s probably 100 in Connecticut,” Ottmann interrupted, rolling a cigarette as he spoke.
“A hundred?” I exclaimed.
Betty was quiet, and I wondered if even he, a man who does not doubt the presence of these cats in our midst and who himself claims multiple sightings, thought Ottmann was exaggerating.
Ottmann nodded. He set down his cigarette and looked me in the eye. “You need to understand that every biologist that works for the state has a duty to deny mountain lions. But right now you’re dealing with top-notch guys. Bill and I are full-throttle. Spatz and Sue don’t want to go where we’re going.”
Betty folded his arms across his chest, where they rose and fell and rose again with his breathing.
The “Spatz and Sue” Ottmann referred to are Christopher Spatz and Sue Morse, two of the better-known and arguably most experienced cougar skeptics in the Northeast. Morse is a Vermont-based naturalist and the founder of Keeping Track, a nonprofit that trains people in the scientific protocols needed to detect, interpret, record, and monitor wildlife tracks and signs. Morse founded Keeping Track in the belief that getting citizens interested and engaged in wildlife will have the knock-on effect of getting them interested and engaged in how land-use decisions affect wild populations—and might provide the impetus for conservation efforts. To date, Keeping Track has helped conserve 40,000 acres in 12 states and in Quebec.
I met with Morse at her home in Jericho. She lives near the end of a gravel road in a modest, low-slung house tucked into the flanks of the Green Mountains. There were caribou antlers mounted above the front doors, and the interior walls were covered in row upon row of books; a long table was piled high with still more books in seemingly random arrangements. There were pine cones on window sills, a well-used hatchet and a variety of animal figurines on display, and, near the television, a stack of videos including Life of a Predator and The African Lion. Morse introduced me to her cat, Allister, whom she referred to as her “portable puma.” Then she fetched me a beer.
Morse, 70, comports herself in a friendly and no-nonsense manner. She favors plaid shirts, green Dickies work pants, and hiking boots, and she chided me for shaking her hand too gently. “You wouldn’t shake hands with a man like that,” she said, and though she was smiling I could tell she was serious.
Morse has been tracking cougars for 45 years, mostly in the mountains of the West, where their existence is not in doubt. Indeed, one of her steadiest sources of funding for Keeping Track is a presentation on cougars that has been known to draw more than 500 audience members. Earlier in the year, I’d attended one of these presentations, and even in the tiny village of Woodbury, Vermont, on a stiflingly hot summer evening, nearly 100 people showed up to hear her speak and see her photographs (Morse is a magnificent wildlife photographer).
Put bluntly, Morse does not believe that New England is home to cougars. This isn’t to say she believes none of these animals has stepped foot on New England soil over the past century. Indeed, in 2011, a male cougar was hit and killed by a car in Milford, Connecticut; through its DNA, wildlife biologists were able to trace the cat back to South Dakota’s Black Hills, some 2,000 miles distant.
But other hard evidence of the big cat’s presence is elusive. In 1994, scat collected after a sighting in Craftsbury, Vermont, was found to contain cougar hair (the animals are prone to ingesting their hair while grooming), and the commissioner of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department circulated a memo with the following line: It is possible that cougars of unknown origin may be breeding to a limited extent in Vermont. A few years later, though, the scat was retested with DNA analysis and found to be canid, rather than feline, in origin. Still more confusion ensued when a lab technician said she might have gotten some samples confused, and thus the canid result was thrown into doubt. Even in the controlled environment of a lab, the truth about Eastern cougars seems to be almost willfully eluding its seekers.
The key to Morse’s assertion can be found in the term “breeding population.” Although the fact that cougars have traveled through New England is irrefutable (a DNA-confirmed roadkill is hard to deny), Morse believes it’s unlikely that they have settled here and created a self-sustaining population. Because while male cougars eventually strike out on their own and occasionally wander far from home, females are, as Morse puts it, “hardwired” to remain close to their mother’s home range.
“The females are where it’s at,” she said. “If we end up with a population, it will be the result of a colonizer female who gets here somehow, some way, and the rest will be history.”
Clearly, Puma concoloronce inhabited the forests of the Northeast, although it’s difficult to say in what numbers. Records suggest that cash bounties for cougar kills were relatively common in the late 1700s and early 1800s; in the Adirondacks, a trapper named Thomas Meacham was credited with 77 cougar kills. As livestock farming came to dominate the landscape, pressure on the big cats slowly mounted on two fronts: The number of farmers wanting them dead was increasing, while the rapid transition from forest to farmland meant their habitat was shrinking. By mid-19th century, forests made up only about 30 percent of New England (it’s notable that today that number stands at approximately 80 percent, nearer to what it was when cougars thrived here).
In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unofficially declared the Eastern cougar extinct. Still, sightings are common. Kim Royar, a biologist at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, told me she receives 40 to 50 reports annually, and although she believes that few, if any, are actual cougar sightings, she doesn’t dismiss the possibility that someday someone will happen upon the real deal. “I have learned one thing in my career, and that’s to never say never,” she said. “In the 37 years I’ve been working, things have changed in ways I’d never have predicted. Wildlife do really crazy things, and you just never know.”
And it’s not just Vermont. The debate rages in Maine, where the last confirmed cougar kill occurred in 1938, and in New Hampshire, where the last confirmed kill was in 1885. It continues in Connecticut, where that South Dakota cat was killed in 2011, and in Massachusetts, despite two credible reports in the past quarter century (in one case, DNA-confirmed scat; in the other, verified tracks). Nowhere in New England is the matter definitively settled.
This assessment is echoed by the aforementioned Christopher Spatz, who has been studying cougars for better than 20 years. “I don’t ever say to people, ‘That’s not what you saw.’ I say, ‘I hope you saw one,’” Spatz told me when I called him at his home in upstate New York. “People clearly aren’t lying when they say they saw a cougar; [the sighting] has a profound effect on them.”
Still, Spatz acknowledged that the word hope is very different from the word believe. “I’ve seen more field evidence in a couple of hours tracking out west than I’ve seen in 100 years on the East Coast,” he said. “One cat will leave more than 10,000 tracks per day. When a cat’s around, it’s not hard to find evidence. You don’t even have to go out and look for it.”
And so we come to the great divide over cougars in New England. On one side, there are those (as represented here by Sue Morse, Kim Royar, and Christopher Spatz, along with a number of others I spoke with) who contend that the lack of verifiable evidence is proof that the animals are not here. On the other side, there are those (as represented here by Bill Betty and Bo Ottmann, along with a number of others I spoke with) who say the overwhelming quantity of anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Betty, for instance, has presented on Eastern cougars more than 300 times, gathering many hundreds of sighting reports in the process. Can they really all be cases of false identification?
To Betty and Ottmann, the dominant narrative of the occasional itinerant cougar from the West is not particularly relevant to the facts on the ground. In their estimation, the presence of a breeding cougar population in New England would likely stem from our proximity to Canada, where, as they rightly point out, DNA analysis has resulted in 19 positive identifications across Quebec and New Brunswick since 2001 (although some of these were shown to be of South American lineage, suggesting escaped pets). Given the long, shared border between these provinces and New England, along with plentiful evidence that other species cross this border regularly, it seems entirely possible that cougars would also engage in international travel.
“We think they’re coming in from Canada,” Betty told me.
“I think they never left,” Ottmann piped in.
“Well, there’s no difference between Maine and New Brunswick, anyway,” said Betty. “If they’re in one, they’re in the other.”
If there’s a middle ground in the cougar debate, it belongs to John Harrigan, a veteran outdoorsman, newspaper reporter, and widely read syndicated columnist. Harrigan is 72 and lives just outside the northern New Hampshire town of Colebrook; he has a long, craggy face that seems almost to have molded itself after the mountainous landscape of his home state.
We met for lunch on a Sunday morning in early March, and it didn’t take long for me to understand why Harrigan is such a popular columnist. He is a consummate storyteller, and he wears on his sleeve his affection for the region and the hard-working, commonsense people who inhabit it. He’s also unafraid to take unpopular positions when he deems it necessary: Shortly before our meeting, he’d signed a petition in favor of keeping ATVs off public roads. “I’m gonna get hammered for it,” he sighed.
Harrigan’s interest in cougars was sparked in the late ’70s, after he took ownership of The Coos County Democrat and began noticing the steady influx of reported sightings. “At least once a year there’d be a story from somewhere, but I only ran the absolute best,” he told me. He soon developed a five-question litmus test: How far away were you? What time of day was it? How big was the animal? What color was it? And the clincher, What would you say was the most distinguishing feature? By now, I knew the answer to that one. “The tail,” I said. Harrigan nodded. “The tail’s gotta be there. If it’s not, you just thank the person and say good-bye.”
Forty years of reporting on New Hampshire cougar sightings has convinced Harrigan that the state is home to at least a handful of breeding animals. Part of this belief is rooted in his journalistic experience, which across the decades has cultivated his nose for sincerity. But perhaps an even larger portion is the product of his enduring faith in the men and woman—loggers, hunters, trappers—whose vocations and avocations have instilled in them a deep familiarity with wild places and the creatures who inhabit them. Because he lives among them, Harrigan understands that no one knows the woods better. And so when they come to him with a sighting, he’s prepared to believe. So long as the tail’s there, that is.
“I have no choice but to take this seriously,” he told me. “It’s not my call. If these people say they saw something, I’m going to listen.”
If there’s one thing people on all sides of the debate can agree on, it’s that a breeding population of cougars is essential to the overall health of New England’s ecosystems, which currently lack an apex predator. The region’s top predator, the coyote, is classified by biologists as a mesopredator (a type that in New England includes skunks and raccoons), which feeds primarily on smaller animals. “We need [an apex] predator back on the land,” Sue Morse told me. “If these animals are not in the habitat, what we see is an overabundance of herbivores.”
The ecologist John Laundre, who has spent 35 years studying cougars, concurs. He coined the term “landscape of fear” to describe the relationship between predator and prey in the wild. “We’re arrogant if we think we’re the only species that makes decisions based on fear,” he told me when I called him at his home in Oregon. “Fear is actually one of the most powerful ecological forces we know, and it’s a really important management tool.”
According to Laundre, the problems caused by a relatively fear-free ecosystem are not always obvious, in part because they can take decades to fully manifest. “For instance, a favorite food for deer is the seedlings of forest tree species. [An overabundance of deer] means our forests are getting older and older and not being replaced.” He also points to the influx of invasive plant species in New England as evidence of an out-of-control deer population. “The deer don’t eat the exotics, but they eat the competitors. They set the stage for the exotics to move in, and this has a huge impact on our ecology,” he said. “We need cougars and we need wolves back in the Northeast, because a landscape of fear is a well-balanced landscape.”
Perhaps, then, the ultimate question isn’t whether cougars are among us, but rather how we can encourage them to settle here. And that’s a surprisingly complex question, because it hinges on numerous factors: policy and politics, culture and conditioning, habitat and, frankly, hubris. For who but we humans can look across the landscape and not acknowledge our role in the diminishment of cougars and the myriad ways in which we have knocked the landscape out of balance?
Before I departed the Old Well Tavern, Bo Ottmann offered to lead me on a walk into an adjacent stretch of woods, where, he assured me, cougars might be found. I must have looked doubtful—we were within spitting distance of a heavily traffickedroad and only 12 miles from downtown Hartford—but both Ottmann and Betty told me that cougars actually prefer more populated areas, since that’s where deer tend to congregate.
We strolled across the tavern parking lot and ducked into the forest, where Ottmann maintains a portion of his $15,000 worth of wildlife recording equipment (he’s had no luck capturing a cougar on camera, though, despite more than a decade of trying). I could hear the steady rush of traffic on Route 315. There was the vaguest of trails, crisscrossed by deadfalls and a sharp-thorned bush that soon drew blood from Ottmann’s right hand. “It’s OK,” he told me. “This is part of the cougar business. [Betty] and the other guys don’t do this shit. I do this shit.”
The truth is, I was by this point dubious. Much as I liked Ottmann and Betty, and much as I found some of their evidence compelling, I was struggling to reconcile their more provocative claims with the restraint expressed by the many other experts I’d spoken with. I appreciated Ottmann and Betty’s confidence and commitment, but here I was, poking through thorny thickets behind a bar, trailing a bleeding man whose devotion to proving the presence of cougars was beginning to seem like a quixotic quest with no end.
Yet I also remembered something Sue Morse had told me months before, as we sat in her living room drinking beer and chatting cats. “If you don’t think cougars are coming to the East, think again,” she said, leaning forward for emphasis. “Because they are.”
Ottmann and I walked farther. He’d encouraged me to keep my eyes open for deer carcasses cached in the trees (according to Ottmann, cougars are fantastic climbers and are known to stash their kills high in trees), but I saw only leaf-bare branches. Besides, Ottmann had revealed that he’d been charged by a bear in this same piece of woods, and I felt conflicted about diverting my gaze from the underbrush.
After 20 minutes or so, we turned and stumbled our way back to the parking lot. We hadn’t seen a cougar, nor any evidence to suggest a cougar had traveled these woods recently. But that was OK. Bo Ottmannknew they were out there. He knew it was only a matter of time.