Are There Cougars in the Upper Valley?
Vermont naturalist Sue Morse says the catamount is on the move.
Are there cougars in Vermont? Susan Morse, founder of Keeping Track, offered her professional opinion before a full house at the Montshire Museum last week. America’s lion, also known as cougar, puma, panther and catamount, is dispersing from the West and is headed east.
“They are definitely coming,” Morse said. But they are not here—at least officially. “I’ve not found a cougar track anywhere in the Northeast, but I’m convinced I will someday."
“Bit by bit, state by state they are moving to recover eastern habitats,” she said. Cougars are in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and there are populations in Kansas and Missouri.
Morse gets weekly calls from someone claiming to have seen a cougar. But they have been cases of mistaken identity. Lynx and bobcats are the animals most often mistaken for a cougar. (One local wildlife watcher thinks wet golden retrievers should be added to the list of critters mistaken for cougars.)
When might we see cougars in the Upper Valley? Morse says the answer depends on changes to cougar management practices in the western states. The animals are certainly capable of making the journey to New England. One male walked 1,500 miles east from the Dakotas to Connecticut before he was hit by a car in Milford earlier this year.
Management practices in the West limit the population of the big cats, making them less likely to disperse because there is enough habitat where they are, says Morse. About 3,500 cougars are killed by hunters each year. That number, combined with natural mortality, decreases the pressure on the cats to disperse from western states.
Male cougars from the west disperse to the east in search of territory and females. While there is plenty of prime cougar territory in Vermont for them, there are no females.
“It will take females time to get here. They stay closer to their home range,” said Morse
“They are killing dispersers at the source for the recreational pleasure of a small number of people — I don’t think that is right,” says Morse.