It prowled the Black Hills in South Dakota, was caught on camera in Wisconsin, and identified again in Connecticut. DNA tests show that the cougar killed last week in New England traversed 1,500 miles, twice as far as any recorded dispersal pattern for the species. Its appearance in Connecticut marks the first confirmed presence of a mountain lion there in more than a century.
The two- to five-year old male met its end when and SUV hit it on June 11th. It was most likely looking for a mate in a behavior called dispersal, but cougars of that age generally don’t travel more than 100 miles, experts say. Officials know that this cat traveled so far because DNA tests performed at the Forest Service Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Montana show the same genetic material collected in scat, blood, and hair found in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Yet Daniel C. Esty, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, cautions that the proof of this one cat in Milford doesn’t mean that there are more in the area. “This is the first evidence of a mountain lion making its way to Connecticut from western states, and there is still no evidence indicating that there is a native population of mountain lions in Connecticut,” he said.
The statement confirms what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found in a 2009 study of cougars in the East. “There’s no evidence that native cougar populations have survived along the East Coast,” said Mark McCollough, a biologist with the FWS who completed a study of possible eastern cougars (see the full article in this Green Guru column).
Still, the finding shows that cougars are expanding their range, and a study published last year in the journal Ecosphere, a publication of the Ecological Society of America, stated that, “Cougar populations across the western United States have shown interrelatedness and movement among populations. Recent genetic analyses classified all cougars ranging north of Argentina as one interrelated subspecies.”
Most cougars in the East were wiped out in the 1800s when they were seen as a threat to livestock, and experts question whether the cats could recolonize the area. Maybe others will make the long journey east. That’s one long cat walk.