About 80 people gathered at Tolland High School Thursday night to take in the mountain lion lecture sponsored by Conserving Tolland. Speaker Bill Betty presented evidence and proposed theories that could prove that Connecticut, including , is home to a native population of Eastern mountain lions.
“Connecticut is cougar heaven,” Betty said. “We have rolling hills, and more importantly, 200,000 white tails. You really couldn’t ask for a better place for mountain lions.”
Betty later showed maps covered with dots, each of which represented sightings of mountain lions in Connecticut and the rest of New England. Contrary to traditional thought, population studies have shown that mountain lions prefer rolling hills and more heavily developed areas to remote mountain regions. Betty displayed several maps of Maine and New Hampshire, demonstrating the trend.
Betty, who has had a dozen personal sightings in Rhode Island, studies mountain lion evidence and attends national conventions. He said that the conservation organization, Cougars of the Valley, has compiled 300 sightings in the Farmington Valley region of the state alone. Canton and Simsbury have also had about 70 sightings.
While Betty had plenty of evidence to support a mountain lion population, the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection still lists the mountain lion as extinct under the Endangered Species Act. Betty said that, according to officials, it's thought that there has been no reproducing, native population in the state since the 1920s.
The state explains any cougar evidence, such as the recent mountain lion , under one of three theories: a subspecies relic of the Eastern mountain lion; a Western cougar that migrated to the area; or an escaped or abandoned pet.
Betty, however, said that the sheer number of sightings and evidence substantiates a native population of cougars. He also quoted the work of geneticist Melanie Culver, who has proven that all North American puma species are genetically virtually identical. Therefore, there are no “western” and “eastern” species to differentiate between.
In general, the audience members seemed to agree with Betty’s views. South Windsor resident Stafford King is sure that he saw a cougar on his land three years ago.
“I reported it to the DEP and they said they don’t exist,” he said.
Tolland resident Loren Gerber said that he and his wife have both seen cougars in the area.
“Absolutely, they’re here,” he said.
Conserving Tolland President and founder Roseann Kellner Gottier said that the issue has become important for the region and is glad the lecture was well-attended. Employees from the state DEEP, as well as Tolland Public Safety Supervisor John Littell attended the event last night.
“I think it’s good he attended,” Gottier said of Littell. “The more everyone knows and understands, the better it is for us all.”
Since cougars are the second largest cat in North America and a natural predator, they can pose a threat. Betty recommended that anyone who encounters a cougar should make themselves large, raise their hands and yell. It’s important to stand your ground and not run or hide. Pepper spray has also been proven as an effective weapon against the animal.
While there is currently not much safety training being done in the state for the extinct animal, Betty predicts that cougar safety will eventually be as common in New England as it is in California.
“Inevitably, the New England states will acknowledge that they have some mountain lions.”
For more information on cougars in Connecticut, visit the Cougars of the Valley site or the Connecticut Department of Energy &Environmental Protection.