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On The Trail: Cougar confirmation


Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Although it seems like old news by now, really, it’s not that old. Plus, there’s an exciting new “breaking” element, which, frankly, is not all that surprising.

First, a little background. On the morning of June 28, 2016, Petersham horse owner Anne Marie Zukowski went out to feed her 16-year-old German Hanoverian named Summit and was immediately suspicious that something wasn’t right when the horse was in the wrong stall. Upon closer inspection, she found deep, ugly claw-mark gouges on the horse’s shoulder, then blood and hair around stable and barnyard. She pondered possible culprits and thought, “Gee, could it have been a mountain lion?”

Hmmmm? Scary indeed.

Concerned about her horse’s well-being, Zukowski brought him for medical treatment to the Tufts University animal hospital and alerted law-enforcement officials to her problem. Among the agencies to visit the site and review the evidence were police, game wardens and MassWildlife, which concluded that her horse had injured itself by rushing through a gate and catching a shoulder on its open latch. Furious at what she interpreted as an insulting, condescending, clueless hypothesis, and with the resources to pay for independent analysis, she gathered blood and hair samples left on the scene and sealed them in a plastic bag. Then she searched for a reputable lab to identify the animal that had left the biological calling cards around her stables.

The samples wound up at the University of Florida at Gainsville’s Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, which tested them and determined in November that they had been left by a cougar or mountain lion or puma or whatever you choose to call it. The long and the short of this finding was that her horse had not been attacked by a bear, a big bobcat or a sharp, open gate latch. No sir. It was a mountain lion, rare indeed in these parts, with females and thus reproductive populations said to be extinct east of the Mississippi River. Some question that assessment.

When MassWildlife officials criticized Zukowski’s method of specimen collection and said they knew nothing of the lab she had used and thus had issues with the finding, she grew more incensed and felt disrespected. At that point, a watchdog group called “Cougars of the Valley,” which investigates New England cougar sightings and the sites of reported incidents like Zukowski’s, jumped in, paying to send what was left of the biological materials in Florida to Melanie Culver, one of the nation’s most respected cougar researchers. When MassWildlife officials claimed they were unfamiliar with Ms. Culver as well, Cougars of the Valley spokesman Ray Weber begged to differ. MassWildlife had sent 1990s Quabbin scat samples to Culver’s Arizona lab, which ruled they had been left by a cougar.

Stationed at the University of Arizona, Culver is an assistant Wildlife and Fisheries Science professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and assistant leader of the Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Her Culver Lab there analyzed Zukowski’s biological data and confirmed the University of Florida’s findings. Yes, that’s right, the Petersham horse had been attacked by a cougar. Not only that, but a cougar of North American origin. So, howdya like them apples, Ant Martha?

Culver took it a step farther that the Florida lab by identifying the cougar’s gender. It was a male, which may have come as a disappointment to Weber, who was heard wondering aloud on the phone one day what would happen if the beast turned out to be a female, far east of where there are said to be none.

“Can you imagine the reaction of wildlife officials if the Arizona lab finds that the cougar was female?” he enthusiastically asked in June, after the Arizona lab had blood and hair samples in hand. “Wouldn’t that be something, considering officials’ total refusal to admit the possibility that cougars are coming back, and that some of the reported New England sightings are real?”

Well, although the Petersham cat was a male, how long do you suppose it’ll take for a female to make an appearance in Great Lakes country or expansive ranges like the Adirondacks, Catskills, Poconos, Green and White Mountains? Or how about the Berkshires and Appalachians, or even Conway or Colrain? Some say it’s impossible, that too many cougars are killed under liberal hunting quotas in Western states like the Dakotas and Montana, which produce wandering dispersers from overpopulated habitats. Then you have overzealous law-enforcement officers in Minnesota or Illinois or Iowa, who shoot first and ask questions later, killing cougars in the name of public safety before they get close to the Eastern Seaboard. But don’t forget that wayward males have already found their way here, including the first confirmed case killed on a Milford, Conn., highway on June 11, 2011, just weeks after the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared Eastern cougars extinct instead of endangered. Now this in Petersham. What’s next? Fact is, Northeastern cougar rewildling is looking more and more possible, perhaps even probable, as the years pass and the forests continue to grow — no matter how long the odds, what the chorus of detractors says or how loud they scream it.

In the meantime, there’s still loose ends in Arizona. Culver, a Ph.D geneticist, is trying to match the Petersham cougar’s DNA to samples in a national database. She’ll likely soon know what gene pool this big cat came from. Is it a North Dakota cat? South Dakota? Montana? Idaho? How interesting!

Remember when that Milford, Conn., cat was killed by a motorist and the initial response from state and federal wildlife officials was that it was probably a released pet that had been set free after growing too big and dangerous to care for. Examination and biological analysis proved that skeptical knee-jerk opinion to be dead wrong. Not only did that 3-year-old, 140-pound male disperser hail from the Black Hills of South Dakota, it had traveled 2,000 miles in just less than two years, depositing a documented DNA trail through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York before meeting his maker in the evening shadows of New York City. The Petersham cat likely followed a similar path and is possibly still lurking somewhere in the Norhteastern neighborhood.

After months of anxious anticipation, Weber finally alerted me to Culver’s finding last Thursday afternoon by email. I had eagerly awaited the Arizona lab’s confirmation all summer and had checked with Weber several times in an effort to stay in front of the story. When I placed a follow-up phone call to Weber Thursday, I was concerned to learn he had forwarded Culver’s findings to MassWildlife, which has from the start tried to discredit the story with its familiar deny-and-distract song and dance routine. Knowing from experience that the state agency doesn’t like to acknowledge the presence of cougars, I gambled, figuring they’d rather sweep it under the rug than make a media splash.

Well, now the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak. There’s no denying that a cougar attacked a horse in the Quabbin community of Petersham. At this point, I’m not sure what intrigues me more — the cat’s gene pool or the state’s impending response.

Stay tuned. It could get humorous.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.