Mountain Lions in Eastern New York State
– John Leahy (Originally published in the Eastwick Press, 2006)
Mountain Lions: Resurgence or Rural Myth?
Do mountain lions exist in our backyards or deep in the woods of Rensselaer County? Is there a large hidden predator lurking in our woods or is the cougar the northeast version of a Sasquatch rural myth? Mountain lion populations in the west have been on resurgence and their spread into mid western states has been well documented. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) states emphatically that mountain lions do not exist in the wild in New York State in a self-sustaining population and that any random individuals that may have been encountered were escaped captive creatures. On the other hand, reports of mountain lion sightings persist throughout the state and the eastern Rensselaer County region.
Mountain lions or cougars (Felis concolor) are large cats that, according to the Sierra club, can be up to 200 lbs and 6 to 8 feet long. The fur is usually a tawny golden color and the animal has a distinctive long tail. Their mouth and throat structure does not allow them to roar, but they can purr and emit a scream that sounds like a baby wailing. With the exception of mothers with young or during mating, mountain lions are solitary creatures, living and hunting alone. They kill their prey by leaping from ambush rather than long pursuit, like all cats tiring quickly after an explosive sprint and not capable of the prolonged wearing out of a prey that involves the teamwork of a band of predators. They hunt deer but also feed on small mammals and even insects. Mountain lions had historically ranged throughout the Americas but were hunted to extinction in many parts of North America with the last known individual in New York State killed in the 1890’s.
Nevertheless, sightings are reported by woodsmen and non-woodsmen alike. Local hunter Tim Blanchard claims he saw a mountain lion twice late last summer on Route 2 near the marshy area just east of Lena’s Kitchen in Grafton. Jack Fox of Petersburg said a mountain lion crossed in front of his car on his driveway several years ago. Ron Alund, a trapper from Petersburg and a member of the Mid Hudson Valley Fur Harvester Association and the New York State Trapper Association, said that he found large cougar sized paw prints with tail drag marks in the snow. He added that several trappers, whose opinions as woodmen he respects, also told him they have seen mountain lions in the local woods.
More recently, Thelma Wadsworth of Berlin, who owns horses and offers trail rides, claimed that she had seen a mountain lion on her property and that a mountain lion had killed one of her horses. However, she didn’t call a veterinarian out to inspect the corpse and the DEC Law Enforcement officer that visited the site pronounced that the horse had died of exhaustion, possibly after being chased to death by coyotes and then partially eaten by coyotes. Several of Mrs. Wadsworth’s neighbors, including Arthur June Jr. and Stacey and Brian Healey, claim they also saw a mountain lion around their houses during this same time period. Mrs. Wadsworth took several photos that show a cat like paw print, but there was unfortunately nothing in the photo to indicate size scale that would help identify the print as the right size for a cougar paw. Another of Mrs. Wadsworth’s neighbors also reported having seen a mountain lion on her property two years ago, but stated that it was black in color.
DEC wants to see concrete evidence such as photos with scale indicators, paw prints, corpses of mountain lions, or deer corpses showing distinctive mountain lion kill bites. According to DEC Regional Wildlife Manager Dick Henry, there is no tangible evidence or definitive proof of the existence of mountain lions in New York State. “When mountain lions are around” said Henry “they leave lots of tracks, lots of large noticeable scat, and lots of dead deer. They typically bite the back of the head or neck and cover up the uneaten part of the corpse with leaves to feed on later.” Henry goes on to say that there is a lot of purported information on the internet that is inaccurate and misleading and this makes dissemination of real scientific knowledge even more difficult. Sightings tend to be fleeting moments and people frequently mistake bobcats, fishers, and even house cats for mountain lions.
Some trappers agree with DEC. Gary Kavaniski, Vice President of the Mid Hudson Valley Fur Harvester Association, also believes that evidence of mountain lion presence should be readily available. “People don’t accurately identify what they see.” he says. “The technology that’s available today would be able to accurately identify the evidence of mountain lions if it were there.”
Al Hicks, DEC Mammal Specialist for Endangered Species, points out that mountain lion evidence is readily found in Florida where the long standing established population is fewer than 70 individuals. In addition to leaving tracks and scat and dead deer, mountain lions are found dead along the roads after being hit by cars. According to Florida Fish and Wildlife, ten mountain lions were found dead in the state in 2006 alone, with five of them killed by cars. Hicks also points out that moose have moved back into Rensselaer County in the last ten years and they have left plenty of visible evidence of their presence. Even lynx that were released in the Adirondacks turned up dead on the roadside with disappointing frequency. However the 600,000 licensed deer hunters that comb the New York State woods every year have never reported any hard evidence of mountain lions.
Lisa Hoyt of the Dyken Pond Environmental Center poses a question that is of interest whether the current reported sightings have any validity or not. “Could a population of mountain lions exist here? Grafton Plateau is a large area of contiguous forest, one of the largest areas in New York State, but would it be large enough to support a population of wide ranging animals like the mountain lion?”
The answer according to Nancy Heaslip, DEC Regional Wildlife Biologist for Rensselaer County, would probably be no. “The biological habitat that mountain lions require – they need a huge amount of space – is not available here.”
If mountain lions do not currently exist here, would they be able to adapt to live in smaller ranging territories and in closer proximity to man than they are traditionally accustomed? This query is an interesting academic question for wildlife biologists and a potential policy issue for wildlife management administrators. For others who claim they have already seen mountain lions, the question is a moot point.
Another persistent rumor is that DEC is in cahoots with the insurance industry to release mountain lions into the wild to lower the deer population that is involved in so many traffic accidents. DEC administrators are frustrated with persistent suggestions and accusations that they covertly release cougars into the woods and then engage in an elaborate cover up operation to deny the act. “I don’t know where these rumors start.” said Heaslip. “I suppose one person says something and then it is repeated and eventually everybody starts believing it. DEC would never release a species without public approval. All release and restoration programs go through a rigorous and heavily regulated process of open debate, review and public commentary before being enacted.”
Other rumors also crop up repeatedly. One conspiracy type rumor is that DEC shot a mountain lion from a helicopter and secreted the body away while a second popular rumor claims that deer carcasses have been found dragged up onto tree limbs by mountain lions. Heaslip has quick answers for both. In the first case, hunting mountain lions by helicopter would be totally ineffective, especially in a heavily forested area like Rensselaer County. When mountain lions are hunted, the technique employed is to hunt them on foot using dogs to corner them in a tree where they can be shot. As for the second, Heaslip points out that mountain lions do not drag their prey up onto tree limbs. This behavior is typical of leopards in Africa.
While DEC doesn’t believe that mountain lions currently exist in New York State, it is certainly willing to receive evidence to the contrary. “If people have evidence they should notify us. We would be glad to see it.” says Henry.
A few tips of what to do to collect evidence:
- Include scale indicators like a ruler or even a finger in photos.
- Take videos
- Make plaster of paris molds made from paw prints
- And a suggestion for the more zealous aficionados – collect and preserve scat for DNA analysis.
The following websites have further information about mountain lions, and also bobcats and fishers, which are frequently mistaken for mountain lions:
NY DEC Species restoration