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On The Trail

On the Trail: Cougar leftovers

The brook’s rattling, snaking its way through dwindling streamside ice shelves, the once-bloated woodshed is emptying, the end in sight, my taxes are e-filed, and, well, I guess life is good, notwithstanding Spring Sports Supplement week, which always unleashes a furious scramble before the first “Play ball!” echoes off North Sugarloaf’s red sandstone cliffs so familiar to me as a boy.

So here I sit atop a cushion on this worn walnut seat, still spending most of my time delving deeper in local prehistory — reading, emailing, talking on the phone and in my daily rambles — all of it an information-gathering process in anticipation of the woods opening their arms for springtime exploration. I have planned a few enticing field trips I can’t wait to embark upon but must discipline myself to be patient, never easy but usually rewarding. After focusing for months on the valley, where Paleo people were drawn to early vegetation and critters that ate it, I want to find signs of pre-Paleo habitation in the uplands, from back in the day when the ancient Sugarloaf beaver myth was born, the original storytellers of oral history looking out from high above the shores of post-glacial Lake Hitchcock. But enough of that — just a little tease about things to come, plus an unnecessary reminder of where my passions lie.

This week I’m going to take the easy way out by revisiting a tired old subject addressed last week for the first time in a while. The topic is cougars; no, not them, the four-legged variety. I guess I have little choice at this point. What’s kind of biped version is out there for a 60-year-old man? Oooops. Better be careful before I offend someone thin-skinned; no shortage of such folks in these days of stifling political correctness.

What I’d like to discuss is all the peripheral stuff I disciplined myself to avoid last week, when focused on one specific cougar caper emanating from the north suburban Boston town of Winchester a month ago. Actually, I had displayed exemplary patience on that tale, too, disciplining myself to wait for the story to develop as I suspected it would after watching the hysterical, knee-jerk reaction on the nightly news, followed by a deluge of emails that arrived in my inbox to alert me to a subject readers knew would pique my interest. As expected, when the fellas from MassWildlife finally assessed photos of tracks — go figure — they ruled the prints canine. That’s when I decided to jump in. That way, I get to poke fun at them rather than the opposite: that is, them responding with their final word on my amateurish misidentification and media irresponsibility. Contrary to the opinion of my detractors, I do learn from mistakes, though, and understand the value of analytical patience. Sometimes you must wait for the final word, the delay typically rewarded.

The fact is that, as has so often been the case when it comes to the subject of cougars with four legs and long sloping tails, the eastern Massachusetts tale was the culmination of many cougar stories that crossed my path over the winter. Even more eerie and, um, I guess predictable judging from past experience, there had been a recent run of cougar stories leading up to last week’s piece. Yes, I just keep listening, storing the data and waiting to pounce. So here I sit, crouched low on all fours, wiggling my hind quarters, ready to spring.

As I recall, it all started in January when I heard from a Northfield woman who still had a plastic bagful of scat she believed had been deposited on the wooded riverside flats near where she came face to face with a cougar fleeing a freight train in August. After this close encounter — as I recall, west of the Connecticut River and north of Bennett Meadow — she had taken it upon herself to scour swampy terrain seeking indisputable proof of the sighting and, lo, found the scat, which she collected with her hand inside the Baggie, a chore all responsible dog owners know these days. Even though a female in-law worked for MassWildlife, she was reluctant to approach her for fear of being labeled loony. Instead she asked her brother what he’d do, and he told her to contact me, that I had written extensively about sightings like hers. When we finally hooked up, I encouraged her to send the sample to her inside contact, then let me know the results. That was back in January. Not a word since. I can’t say I doubted her sighting. She didn’t sound the least bit wacky to me.

It gets better. On the Saturday morning before last week’s piece about the Winchester cougar hit the street, I had arrived at my tax accountant’s South Deerfield office an hour early and decided to run a quick errand to the town dump, where I had some documents to exchange with a friend. On the way home, still time to kill, I took a quick diversion past the home of an old childhood friend to see if I could catch him. The yard screamed that he was there and I pulled in, knocked on the door and soon there he was, same mischievous smile he’s worn since the day I met him 55 years ago. The game wardens never liked this guy much, but that didn’t bother me. I have always been entertained by him. This visit was no exception. He was a wealth of information. He went from witnessing the Hall of Fame flight of a young Vermonter fleeing State Police after scaling a high chain-link fence bordering an Interstate that’s come to be known as “Heroin Highway,” to a busy run of Craigslist Corvette sales, to, yes indeed, you guessed it: Goshen cougars — the four-legged kind that love venison chops. My buddy’s frequented that northwestern Hampshire County town of late for romance, and claims cougars are the talk of the town, that many folks have seen them, the town buzzing in the public square, yet folks are not “reporting” them, per se.

“They did a lot of logging up there and the deer are thick,” my buddy told me. “I guess that’s why there are cougars. People are seeing them in their backyards. Some have photos. Rumor has it that they even found a deer carcass in a tree four or five years back. No lie. They say a cougar killed it and dragged it up into a tree. … Wild stuff.”

Which brings me back to last week’s tale of the Winchester cat. While talking to a familiar old source on these matters, one who’s hell-bent on substantiating Pioneer Valley cougars whenever and wherever sightings are reported, I was able to glean a little additional information. His outfit, Cougars of the Valley, presented a Friday-night Blandford lecture that drew an overflow crowd of better than 85, all of them talkative and thoroughly convinced there are cougars in their woods. My source claims the tracks photographed by Winchester police were sent to a panel of seven nationwide experts, including documentary film makers and wildlife officials who live in western cougar country, and all seven agreed the tracks are those of a large cat. Then, of course, MassWildlife experts viewed the snapshots and determined they were dog tracks, which still irks the police who shot the photos. Believe me: the people who call MassWildlife after backyard sightings are no more pleased with the responses they receive from wildlife biologists. In fact, I have spoken to many indignant witnesses who called me because they had been insulted by experts who implied they were either fools or liars.

In a lively telephone chat about this and that with my Cougar of the Valley source, a hospital administrator no less, I touched upon logging practices and ventured quite by chance into a controversial operation now underway in special hardwood forest familiar to me surrounding the Northampton reservoir in West Whately. The man hadn’t visited the site to observe what was occurring there, but he knew Massachusetts Forest Watch activist Chris Matera was the loudest critic, and that caught his attention. In his opinion, Matera is a credible watchdog driven only by a commitment to protecting forest ecosystems, so he holds nothing but respect for the man. In his humble opinion, when Matera starts screaming, those who want to protect forests ought to listen. I myself have followed Matera, spoken to him and folks who have worked with him, and I agree with my source that he has only honorable intentions.

“Two of his target areas were the state forests in Savoy and at October Mountain (in Lee),” my source recalled. “I saw both sites with my own eyes and must agree that loggers left a destructive, disgusting, clear-cut mess. That’s all I can tell you. Matera was concerned about irresponsible logging practices, and he was absolutely right. I was stunned when I observed what had been done there. It was bad, really bad.”

That discussion pulled me right back to Goshen, not far from Savoy, and I told him what my boyhood friend had told me about cougars there. He hadn’t heard anything recent, but chuckled and said, “Yeah, ask state officials about the deer found in the tree up there if you want to see them squirm. They investigated, went into full denial and still refuse to talk about it. I believe there was truth to the report. But trust me, you’re not going to find a anything on the record.”

Hey, you can’t make this stuff up. Maybe I shouldn’t report it. Maybe it’s not true. But I suppose it never hurts to chronicle a news-gathering process. I guess I’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other and bumping into these random anecdotes, many interrelated, that keep the coals of discovery and inquiry glowing. Then questions like this, from the Cougar of the Valley man, who on Wednesday asked, “Do you suppose your source would talk to me about Goshen? I’d like to get up there to talk to people, look for tracks, maybe set up trail cameras. This is a good spring. By now, the snow’s usually, precisely when cougars get active and start following deer to edge habitats. It’s a great time to find tracks when there’s snow.”

With that, I’m outta here. Gotta go, eyes and ears wide open for wild little hinterland rumors and devilish backwoods ghosts.

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

A professional, thorough investigation would determine cougar presence by at least three corroborating physical factors including tracks, scat, territorial scrapes, fur, DNA, kills and photographs (cougars, even in the lowest densities, are captured routinely on cell phone cameras, video, and remote wildlife cams - everywhere but East of the Michigan UP and north of Florida). Track cougars in winter conditions, and one can follow their prints for miles, where corroborating evidence like scat, scrapes, fur, den-sites, and kills emerge quickly along their route. In Winchester, a tempest has been brewed from the teapot of one set of poor, melted-out tracks, with no corroborating physical evidence - none - to support them. As Paul Beier, the first cougar biologist who studied cougars in the suburbs, in So Cal, where upwards of 95% of sightings in his study area - in cougar habitat - were determined to be misidentifications, has written, "Sightings are worthless as indicator of cougar presence, cougar numbers, or trends in cougar numbers…even people with extensive experience mistakenly identify other animals as cougars." A thorough journalist - as well as any responsible cougar researcher - would base a confirmation on corroborating physical evidence…the more, the better.

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