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On The Trail

Cougar classrooms

Hmmmm? Isn’t it interesting, maybe even humorous how topics with furry legs and big teeth linger?

Yes, here I sit — still studying ritualistic landscapes and sacred burial grounds of our ancient indigenous tribes, with a current focus on sites called Wissatinnewag and Peskeomskut, where Northeastern tribes congregated in peace and harmony each spring to harvest migratory fish and renew old acquaintances — and I’ll be damned if a familiar old topic doesn’t come charging at me like mid-May shad swimming up the Holyoke tailrace. Maybe it’s a coincidence but, like the Indians, this native son was also driven from the region by 18th- and 19th-century settlers.

I’m talking about cougars, and, no, no, no, not the cradle-robbers trolling for eligible young suitors in Valley Advocate personal ads, either. We’re talking here about four-legged, man-eating wildcats with long, loping tails, sharp claws and teeth. That’s right: big mountain lions that some local folks of sound mind and body believe are back, and not just as wayward travelers occasionally passing through. On what do they base this daring prediction? Very simple: their own two eyes, which some view as solid evidence trumping all other. But don’t count state and federal wildlife officials among the crowd that relies on its senses to draw a conclusion. Uh-uh. You see, the gilt-framed experts in air-conditioned offices still have a thing about “sightings” — that is, witnessing something with the eyes God gave you to process what crosses your path. In fact, these learned officials refuse to accept sightings as anything but misidentifications and fantasia, an opinion that enrages those who risk going out of their way to reach out and report one. Such folks typically find themselves muttering under their breath as they walk away: “What the *$#@ do they think I am, a freakin’ idiot; some Summer of Love survivor experiencing an LSD flashback? What’s wrong with these people? Shouldn’t they take this stuff serious?”

Well, maybe not, but trust me, this popular coffee-shop conversation piece is not fading off into Cautantowwit’s orange southwestern sunset anytime soon. Quite the contrary, it seems to be picking up momentum. And now, with the emergence of “Cougars of the Valley” (COV), a dedicated local investigatory group that chases leads to search for physical evidence, then leaves trail cameras behind to try and capture big cats on film, it’s getting hotter still.

Which brings us to Friday and Saturday nights, when double-barreled PowerPoint cougar presentations will touch down in separate local venues, one right here in Franklin County, the other in the southwestern Hampshire hills, not out of range by any stretch. Both programs promise to provide interesting information gathered by folks of different sexes who have tracked the re-emergence of Northeastern cougars and have plenty to say.

First, right here in our backyard, there’ll be a 7 o’clock Friday gig at Fellowship Hall on 17 Little Mohawk Road in Shelburne, where entertaining Vermont naturalist/writer/lecturer Susan Morse will be on hand as the Shelburne Grange’s guest. Then, Saturday at 7 at Stanton Hall on 26 Russell Rd in Huntington, long a hotbed of four-legged cougar reports, the aforementioned COV will sponsor a program by ubiquitous Rhode Island cougar tracker Bill Betty, who will unveil a 90-minute PowerPoint program that spares no one involved in the Northeastern state-sanctioned denials that the large feline predators, native to New England through the late 19th century, are indeed repopulating the region. My guess is that Morse’s spiel is a little less confrontational or accusatory than Betty’s, but one never knows. This debate is getting wild, with the frequency of cougar-sightings increasing dramatically, including a certain impossible-to-deny South Dakota “disperser” that turned up as road-kill on a southern Connecticut highway in the spring of 2011.

Morse — founder of Keeping Track, Inc. from Huntington, Vt. — has 37 years experience as a naturalist and will be returning to western Massachusetts after appearing before a large fall crowd at the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton. Regarded as a tracking and nature guru, Morse has published articles in many respected outdoor journals, and was recipient of the 2001 Franklin Fairbanks Award for a lifetime of creative and dedicated service to enriching New England residents’ awareness and understanding of the natural world. To bring her to Shelburne, Selectman Joe Judd had to lace up his fundraising shoes, soliciting five generous donor-partners to help cover the fee. And those five benefactors — American Farm Bureau, National Wild Turkey Federation, Northeast Big Bucks Club, Virtual Archery and, Mountain Lion Foundation — will all set up promotional booths for Morse’s presentation.

“You better get there early,” cautioned Judd, “because there’s limited seating and I expect a big crowd. I’ve advertised, and more and more local people are reporting sightings. I expect many of them to show up out of curiosity. I sure hope we don’t have to turn people away.”

As for Mr. Betty, well, he’s been in the forefront of the New England cougar watch for two decades and, like Morse, is no stranger to the Pioneer Valley. I have spoken to the man in the past and assume he brings chin music among his assortment of pitches. Among his local credits is a 2005 lecture at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst. That’s just one presentation that comes immediately to mind. There have been others, along with many in Connecticut and the northern New England states. More controversial and less credentialed than Morse, many will find Betty’s pugnacious style entertaining. On the other hand, word has it that some state and federal officials are not a bit amused by his shtick, which I don’t doubt. But again, people from the Westfield River community he’ll be addressing have grown accustomed to hearing cougar tales over the years, so the program just may attract an agreeable cabin-fever crowd, with the strong hint of spring that I prematurely predicted had arrived last week poking through fresh white snow-cover.

It could shape up as an interesting weekend for folks curious about the possibility of a cougar comeback. Remember, the establishment continues to insist that Eastern cougars are extinct. Morse and Betty beg to differ. So do the COV folks, who are determined to prove it. Not only is COV looking for cougars, it’s in dogged pursuit of cubs or kittens to establish a reproductive population. And don’t you dare dismiss their goal as far-fetched. The group is committed and confident that, given the advanced hunter-surveillance cameras on the market, they’ll find what they’re pursuing.

Stay tuned. My line of communication with COV spokesman Ray Weber is open and very active, and the man seems to be cocked back on his haunches ready to pounce on fresh red meat.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com.

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