National Geographic : 2013 Dec
poachers, or traffic. The most dauntless of the explorers made headlines in 2011 when he was killed by an SUV on a highway exit in Milford, Connecticut. According to genetic tests this ani- mal came from the Black Hills of South Dakota via a route estimated to be more than 2,000 miles long, setting the continent’s distance record for a journey by four-legged wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had just declared the eastern subspecies of cougar extinct when that South Dakota cat was killed in Mil- ford. Two years later, in a forested suburb a block from where the cat died, resident Gary Gianotti told me he had recently spooked another cougar off his back porch. “We’ve got a booming deer population around here, as well as wild turkeys, rabbits, and rac- coons,” Gianotti said. “I see cougar tracks all the time.” Turning on a cell phone, he showed me photos of large feline paw prints in the snow. “ There’s a cougar population breeding in Con- necticut,” Gianotti insisted, referring me to a website filled with citizens’ accounts of seeing the big cats or their sign. “None of the agencies want to deal with it.” Stories of supposedly unmistakable sightings, eerie nighttime caterwauling, or fresh kills with evidence of a big cat’s signature choke hold on the throat have persisted generation after gener- ation, from Maine to the southern Appalachians. Since the 1960s authorities have received thou- sands of reports of cougars in the East. As a rule the accounts they investigate turn out to be any and every creature except a cougar. Surprisingly, up to a third describe what they saw as a black panther, despite the fact that no scientist has ever found evidence of a black cougar anywhere in North America. But not all the eastern cougar sightings were illusions; experts confirmed well over a hundred. Most appeared to be animals that escaped from captivity—or were purpose- fully set loose. In other cases, though, the cats’ origins remained obscure. As a species Puma concolor is faring better than any of the world’s other great cats. How much further cougars will advance along the comeback trail ultimately depends on where the public is willing to tolerate them. That in turn hinges on what people believe these cats are really like. Cougars have attacked humans on about 145 occasions in the U.S. and Canada since 1890. Just over 20 of those assaults—an average of one every six years—proved fatal. Perhaps the more telling statistic is that at least a third of the verified cougar attacks have taken place over the past two decades. More cougars plus more people in the countryside add up to more po- tential for conflict. As ambush hunters most active after dark, cougars have never been easy to get to know. But with technology now able to keep eyes on the stealthy cats around the clock, much of the A mother cougar and two nearly grown kittens cross a pasture near Kalispell, Montana. Young cougars generally strike out on their own between one and two years of age. Their search for territory not already claimed by older cats leads some into human habitat—and trouble. Murray suarez n Society Grant this photographic coverage was funded in part by your society membership.