If the eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) went extinct in the 1930s, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reported back in March, why do so many people in New England keep reporting cougar sightings?
As FWS lead scientist Mark McCollough told me in March, the 110 confirmed cases on cougars (sometimes called mountain lions) being seen in the eastern U.S. were all traced to animals brought to the area from other parts of the country and had probably escaped or been let loose into the wild.
But now comes evidence that one cougar actually migrated to Connecticut all the way from South Dakota, a journey of 2,400 to 2,900 kilometers (1,500 to 1,800 miles). The North American cougar (also classified as P. c. couguar; cougar taxonomy is still a matter of great debate) was struck and killed by an SUV while crossing the Wilbur Cross Parkway on June 11. DNA tests proved that not only did the cougar originate in South Dakota, but also that it had previously been tracked in 2009 and 2010 through Wisconsin and Minnesota, where the animal's DNA had previously been collected through blood, hair and droppings. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, cougars disappeared from that state in the early 20th century. They died out in Connecticut prior to that.
Officials told the The New York Times that the cougar was between two and five years old and was probably traveling looking for a mate, a process known as dispersing. Male cougars stay away from other males and maintain their own territories, but they rarely stray more than 160 kilometers.
"The journey of this mountain lion is a testament to the wonders of nature and the tenacity and adaptability of this species," Daniel Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said in a prepared statement. "This mountain lion traveled a distance of more than 1,500 miles from its original home in South Dakota—representing one of the longest movements ever recorded for a land mammal and nearly double the distance ever recorded for a dispersing mountain lion."
Etsy said there is no evidence of any other cougars living in Connecticut.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Mont., conducted the genetic tests. Kristi Pilgrim, laboratory supervisor for the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, told National Public RadioR that the station maintains a genetic database of cougars from "all over the west," which allowed them to link the animal killed in Connecticut with its kin in South Dakota.
Scientists were shocked and amazed at the cougar's journey. "As a biologist who has looked pretty carefully at the cougar issue, I was really astounded, as I think most biologists who deal with cougars were at this information, FWS's McCullough told the Bangor Daily News last week. "It does, apparently, set a record as far as dispersal distance for any land mammal in North America that we're aware of, and is significantly beyond the previous record of dispersal of a cougar as far as straight-line distance." The previous dispersal record was just about 1,000 kilometers.
This animal, nicknamed the "Saint Croix Cougar" and "Twin Cities Cougar" during its travels, may have been solo, but that doesn't mean cougar sightings will stop now that he has been killed. Another unconfirmed cougar sighting occurred in Dresden, Maine (about 16 kilometers from where I live) just last week.
Photo: Necropsy of the cougar killed in Connecticut, via Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection