Coyotes, and Bears, Oh My
confusion: Bobcats, like the one above, are often
mistaken for cougars.
New Yorkers may soon need to learn to live more intimately
with some of our larger kin in the animal kingdom
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
know what Im talking about: Rick Beyfuss, a
Cornell Cooperative Extension agent, points to where
he and his colleagues have seen cougars. Photo by:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
moose really like is young growth. It’s like ice cream to
them,” says John Organ of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
sighting central: Taxidermist Les Armstrong hears
about mountains lions from his customers all the time.
Photo by: Joe Putrock
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
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.
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.
that the line between coyote and wolf is getting somewhat
blurred, it raises a question of what we’ve got out there,”
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”