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Feline confusion: Bobcats, like the one above, are often mistaken for cougars.
Cougars, Coyotes, and Bears, Oh My
New Yorkers may soon need to learn to live more intimately with some of our larger kin in the animal kingdom

By Darryl McGrath

The tawny shape flicked across the road in the October twilight 300 feet ahead of Roger Vaughn’s school bus. He braked, and then peered in disbelief at the animal crouched in the roadside bushes.

The sighting lasted a few moments—a flash of motion, gone almost before it registered—but that was enough time for certain details to imprint indelibly in Vaughn’s memory: long body, long tail and a distinctly feline form and motion.

This was no dog scampering into the road, of that he was certain. Had he not been in an area he had known all of his life—Route 145 in Greene County, between Cairo and East Durham—he might have thought his eyes were playing tricks on him in the fading light. But four years later, and despite the otherworldly sensation of that fleeting glimpse, Vaughn is absolutely sure that he saw a mountain lion. And in the days that followed, he talked to two or three other people who had seen it, also.

The only problem is that state and federal wildlife officials say that the last verified sighting in New York of a wild mountain lion—also known as a cougar—was more than a century ago. But New Yorkers by the dozens every year still claim that they see mountain lions in the Catskills.

No matter: While residents and officials debate the veracity of the mountain lion reports, there are plenty of other large animals in New York being sighted with no one disputing their existence. And that boom of big game is a success story, an occasional headache and—some experts say—a growing hazard as New Yorkers learn to cope with the wild kingdom unfolding ever closer to home.

In recent years, a 400-plus-pound black bear has been shot in Albany’s Washington Park and an errant moose has galloped around Arbor Hill. Capital Region residents can see black bears in their garbage cans, coyotes loping through their streets and—if they’re really lucky and live on the eastern outskirts of the area—moose tracks in their more rural back yards.

The reasons for the increase are many: restrictions on trapping and hunting; fewer numbers of hunters (coyotes, moose, bears, bobcats and deer are all game species in New York); and the uncanny ability of many creatures to adapt to humans, even as those humans expand into what was once strictly animal habitat.

The absence of any natural predators also has helped. You can thank the bounty hunters of generations past—the same ones who hunted wolves to near extinction—for the super explosion of white-tailed deer and the reduction of your shrubbery to champed stubble.

And some animals have shown remarkable ingenuity in either settling in New York for the first time ever (such as coyotes, which never lived here at all before emigrating from the West starting about 70 years ago), or coming back generations after our ancestors were sure they’d shot, trapped or poisoned the last one of its kind (such as moose, which were wiped out in New York in the 1860s, but are now sighted with predictable regularity in eastern Rensselaer County).

The equation is simple to those who study big mammals.

“Human population is continuing to expand throughout the world, and we’re pushing the boundaries more and more on a number of species,” says Al Hicks, a mammal specialist with the Endangered Species Unit of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “There are a number of species that do very well, and the ones that don’t, the more accommodating we have to be.”

Lou Berchielli, a DEC wildlife biologist and an expert on black bears, was in New Jersey one day in June 2000, testifying before state senators about the bear problem there. When he got out of the hearing, he learned that Albany police had that morning shot and killed a black bear that had wandered in and around the downtown area for hours.

No one got injured in that incident, but two years later, in August 2002, a young male black bear attacked and killed an infant girl sitting in a stroller in a bungalow colony near Woodbridge, Sullivan County. The attack—which took place in broad daylight even as several adults tried to ward off the bear—marked the first known time that a bear killed a human in New York.

As freakishly rare as that incident was, Berchielli does not rule out the likelihood that other attacks could take place.

“The things that led up to that—a high human population and a high bear population—we still have,” he says. “The probability is still there.” (His advice to hikers who encounter a black bear: Give it a wide berth and slowly back away, don’t run away. If the bear attacks, fight back by kicking, hitting and shouting.)

John Organ, a wildlife program chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional office in Hadley, Mass., which covers New York, also thinks there will be other attacks.

“It’s not surprising that we had the tragedy in the Catskills, and I’m surprised we haven’t had more,” he says. “I suspect we will have more. I think as hunting of bears declines and human population and bear populations increase, it’s just inevitable.”

New York’s DEC constantly adjusts the numbers of big game animals such as bear and deer that can be hunted each season, says Hicks of the Endangered Species Unit. In the 1970s, when he started hunting, three people had to be listed on a hunting permit for a single deer. Now, with an overabundance of deer, the regulations have expanded—one person can shoot up to two deer, and farmers can get special permits to shoot crop-raiding deer.

The DEC regulates the bear population by expanding or shortening the length of the hunting season, and changing the time of year that it starts. Figuring out how to adjust the annual hunting take on such animals is a full-time job for a staff of a dozen people.

I know what I’m talking about: Rick Beyfuss, a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent, points to where he and his colleagues have seen cougars. Photo by: Joe Putrock

“They’re constantly getting data on deer and bear—the age of the animals and the take of animals,” Hicks says. “We have a statistician here and all he does is study those takes.”

Suburban bears and other large mammals that have become habituated to humans have also led to calls for more lenient hunting regulations in some states, such as New Jersey and Maryland.

Clever and adaptable, bears can travel great distances, subsist on garbage—used diapers have been found to be a favorite food in one study—and demonstrate both single-minded determination and phenomenal strength in going after food. They will bend a car door open once they learn, in Berchielli’s words, to “see cars as big coolers.”

And they are survivors. Early settlers in New York worked diligently and successfully to wipe out the wolves, the mountain lions and the moose. They got stymied when they tried to do the same to black bears. Even though bears were considered fair game at any time, any place during much of the history of white settlement in New York, and despite the fact that hundreds of bears were slaughtered in the late 1800s when the state paid a $10 bounty for each dead one, the black bear population in New York has not only survived but thrived.

Berchielli estimates that the number of bears in the state ranges from 5,000 to 7,000 or more, concentrated in the Adirondacks, the Catskills and the southwestern Allegheny region, with the highest numbers occurring in the spring, after the cubs are born but before the adults start to wander.

And he sees them as a valuable resource in the state, one to be managed and controlled when necessary, but also tolerated. Bears were here long before suburbia and they have their place in the delicately balanced cycle of the environment. And, as biologists have long known, nature has a way of filling space. You start tinkering with that balance, you get rid of one animal, and another tends to take its place. That’s what happened with wolves and coyotes.

Researchers studying evidence going back to the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago, can’t find any indication that coyotes ever lived in New York before the early to mid-1900s. But they sure live here now. The DEC doesn’t know exactly how many coyotes we have, but does say it’s a lot, and that they are thriving.

“Coyotes have a special skill, a special ability to pioneer and move out. They have really high reproductive capabilities,” says Michael Amaral, a senior endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Concord, N.H.

Coyotes are ready to breed at one year, and a female can produce six to eight pups every year for as many as six or seven years. But size as well as numbers counts with predators, and an adult coyote weighs only 40 pounds, versus 90 pounds or more for an adult wolf. The deer population has exploded, as anyone who drives along the New York Thruway and sees them grazing like cattle can attest. It’s debatable what effect, if any, coyotes have on keeping deer numbers down, Amaral says.

“The resident wolf was the top predator,” Amaral says. “We monkeyed with that whole nature system.”

New York’s deer population around the turn of the century was estimated at about 20,000, says Paul Curtis, an assistant professor of biology at Cornell University and a wildlife specialist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service. Today, he says, the state’s deer population is believed to be at least a million.

“It’s been one of the management success stories, but with that comes a lot of problems,” says Curtis, who studies the deer population as part of the Wildlife Damage Management Research and Outreach Cooperative, a multistate effort examining nuisance animals. “We routinely catch does in suburban areas that weigh 140, 150 pounds, because they’re eating so well.”

Moose started to move back to New York on their own in the 1980s, coming in from Vermont and New Hampshire. In those states, their numbers had increased after the massive clear-cutting of forests to rid the trees of the parasitic spruce-bud worm. As new growth started in once-dense woodlands, the moose population grew and spread.

“What moose really like is young growth. It’s like ice cream to them,” says John Organ of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cougar sighting central: Taxidermist Les Armstrong hears about mountains lions from his customers all the time. Photo by: Joe Putrock

The state DEC estimates New York’s moose population at 150 to 200 now, says Hicks, the mammal specialist in the Endangered Species Unit. Moose have been reported in New York as far south as Westchester County (as in, just north of New York City) and as far west as Rochester.

Easily four times the size and weight of a deer, moose pose a major hazard to motorists when they amble onto roads. (Car-moose collisions, however, are still fairly rare; car-deer collisions occur by the tens of thousands every year.) Moose can clear a four-foot fence almost by stepping over it, making it difficult to keep them out of a rural backyard vegetable patch. They are spotted fairly often in eastern Rensselaer County, and DEC officials captured a young and clearly disoriented moose galloping around Arbor Hill in 1997.

But it’s unlikely that the moose population will ever reach the bursting numbers of the deer population, wildlife biologists say, because moose have different habitat and population density requirements, and a front lawn is never going to be their favorite place to graze.

On the other hand, New Yorkers will have to continue living with well-fed deer that at first glance seem the size of moose, because it doesn’t look like the deer are going to have any natural predators in the state for a long time.

In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that a large coyote shot in the Adirondacks in January 2002 was in fact a gray wolf. Federal authorities couldn’t determine the animal’s origin, leaving open the question of whether it was an exotic pet that had been released, or an animal wild from birth that somehow ended up in northern Saratoga County. Wolves are known to be great travelers, capable of roaming hundreds of miles, but so far, there’s no evidence that gray wolves from the West and upper Midwestern states are naturally repopulating the North Country.

“If we had a Rocky Mountain strain of wolves—large animals—in the Adirondacks, could they exist without people knowing?” asks Organ of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “My sense is, not for long. There are too many people in the Adirondacks. Someone would see them, hear them.”

The much-debated question of whether wolves should be back in the Adirondacks may eventually become academic, if coyotes can interbreed with Canadian wolves, which many researchers believe they already are doing. The Canadian wolves are smaller than their western counterparts, but still produce hefty wolf-coyote mixes when they interbreed.

“Given that the line between coyote and wolf is getting somewhat blurred, it raises a question of what we’ve got out there,” Organ says.

Opinion is mixed on how much of a problem coyotes pose for humans. They can, and do, feast on household pets, but are they a hazard to people? Some biologists think they might be.

“The next issue on the horizon in New York is going to be eastern coyotes,” says Curtis, at Cornell. “There have been several incidents on the West Coast where coyotes have lost their fear of humans in suburban habitats, and there have been several attacks. Already in New York, we’re routinely losing pets to coyotes.”

Most of the recorded attacks, including one on Cape Cod in 1998, involved children. There have been no recorded coyote attacks on humans in New York, and other researchers point out that nationally, such incidents are still very rare.

“We’re all at much greater danger of being bit or attacked by the dog down the street than we are by black bear or coyotes or wolves or cougars,” says Amaral of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In parts of Greene County, it’s easy to find people who have seen a mountain lion—or think they have. And it’s easy to look up into the mountains in this region, rising up above the twisting dirt roads and remote pastures, and imagine what secrets might be hidden in the woods here.

Les Armstrong, a taxidermist in Durham who grew up in the region, has a 60-pound stuffed bobcat in his living room, which he uses to illustrate how easily someone could mistake a bobcat for a mountain lion.

“That was trapped by a friend right here in the mountains,” he says, nodding at the bobcat, which is about the size of a pit bull.

A mistaken sighting is one thing, however, and tracks are another. Armstrong deals with about 100 hunters a year in the region, through his taxidermy or his side business of dressing deer carcasses for hunters, and he’s heard about mountain lions from too many people not to think they’re out there.

“I’ve talked to people who have seen them, followed their tracks, identified their tracks,” Armstrong says. “A bobcat is going to throw a track down that’s two and a half inches across. A cougar’s track is going to be four inches or larger.”

State and federal wildlife officials take a very cautious approach to mountain lion sightings. When asked outright if mountain lions could be living in upstate New York, five biologists working for state or federal agencies refuse to rule out the possibility, but they are cautious. What people might be seeing, they say, are exotic pets that have gotten too big to keep and have been turned out into the wild. Such animals are unlikely to survive at all, much less form the beginnings of a breeding, natural population, they say.

All five also say it is extremely unlikely that a breeding population of cougars could exist in New York without firm evidence eventually coming to light. No one, they note, has produced a road-killed cougar, or tracks, or a sample of cougar scat (for the non-outdoorsy types, that’s cougar poop) that could be analyzed.

When reminded of this, Armstrong has a ready answer.

“Cats,” he says. “Very rarely do you see a bobcat in the road. They’re just more elusive. They study their prey, they study their surroundings. I’ve never seen a fisher in the woods, but I know they’re around.”

Fishers, which belong to the weasel family, have long bodies and dark coats, and look heftier than their 12 to 15 pounds. Once very scarce in New York, fishers are increasing, in part due to a decline of the fur industry, and wildlife specialists believe they account for many of the “cougar” sightings—and especially the handful of “black panther” sightings—that come in every year.

Even the experts get fooled sometimes. Organ remembers once examining a video turned in by some people who were convinced that they had filmed a mountain lion. Organ thought they had, too, at first, until he froze some of the frames and discovered that the cougar was really a bobcat.

No one disputes that the cougar population has come back with a vengeance in many parts of the United States. It’s just that those parts are a long way from upstate New York.

In his 2003 book The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature, journalist David Baron details the lessons learned in Boulder, Colo., in the 1990s when the cougar population became habituated to humans. Local wildlife authorities had a largely hands-off approach, reminding residents that they chose to live in the mountains and needed to also live with the animals, until a cougar attacked, killed and ate a student jogging on a trail in back of the local high school.

In Colorado, the cougar population rebounded from almost nothing once humans eliminated the wolf population, which was the cougar’s only natural predator. With the cougar a federally protected species, and thousands of abandoned mines forming man-made caves in the mountains, cougars started showing up in broad daylight on people’s back porches. Baron notes that verified sightings of cougars have occurred in Nebraska and Illinois in the last few years, and he predicts that they will keep moving east.

Wildlife officials don’t dispute that an expanding cougar population may follow an expanding deer population eastward, but note that such movement could take a long time. Cougars reproduce very slowly, one or two kittens at a time, and they can’t live at anything approaching the densities of the rapidly multiplying animals such as deer or coyotes.

“Some reports seem very credible to me, but there’s no proof, absolute proof,” says Hicks. In his nearly 30 years with the DEC, he can recall four or five cougar sightings that he considered credible, but even for those, he had no proof.

Hicks recalls a Canadian cross-country skiing expedition he took in Alberta about five years ago. Cougars were known to exist in the region. He was on the trail only a few minutes when he and his friend spotted a fresh cougar track. They knew the animal had been there just minutes before because the falling snow had not yet covered the track. In all his years in New York, he’s never seen similarly clear evidence of cougars.

If cougars were in upstate New York, Hicks says, some of the dozens of credible wildlife biologists doing field research in remote areas, or some of the 600,000 deer hunters out in the field every fall, would find irrefutable proof. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Still, the tales persist. Cougars have taken on a folkloric stature in the Catskills, and the locals note that the sightings often occur in clusters, reported by people who don’t know each other.

Rick Beyfuss, a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent in Cairo, and his colleague Mick Bessire have dismissed countless cougar reports as mistaken identities. But both also spotted cougars, in Catskill and outside of Hunter, in the summer of 2002, a time when a number of residents also reported seeing them in the area.

“The whole thing lasted 10 or 15 seconds, but long enough for me to be sure of what I saw,” Beyfuss says. “There’s mountain lions in the Catskills. Not maybe a reproducing population—maybe escapes, maybe pets turned loose. But there’s too many sightings for people to be mistaken—especially since I’m one of them.”

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