So, you think you saw a mountain lion in CT?

Magenet Magenet

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This happened a decade ago, or more.

After covering some meeting in Kent, I drove home at night. Near the Kent-Warren border, something ran across the road in front of my car.

Not a deer. Not a coyote. Too big to be a bobcat, I thought, but a big cat with a long tail.

My God, I thought … a mountain lion? A catamount? A ghost?

But it was dark. I had my low-beams on. I was tired. I saw the thing for maybe two seconds.

After thinking about it for many years, I have concluded: I and my lying eyes don’t know what it was.

Which is why I am both sympathetic and a doubting Robert when new sightings of mountain lions pop up, as they do in the state every year or two — the latest being in Woodbridge.

We know this can happen. In 2011, a car struck down a mountain lion on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford.

But that was the last confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Connecticut.

As with the Woodbridge sighting, the mountain lion reports since 2011 are only what people saw, or think they saw. Despite the ubiquity of cellphones, no one’s clicked a picture.

This puts the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in the unenviable position of being the naysayer, the killjoy, the skunk in the garden. People say they saw a mountain lion. The DEEP wants proof.

“I think I’d characterize it as a challenge,” said Jenny Dickson, director of DEEP’s wildlife division, of its mountain lion evaluation duties.

It’s not that the state doesn’t want to have another mountain lion, Dickson said

“First, we love wildlife. Why wouldn’t we want to see something as cool as a mountain lion?” she said. “Second, think of the funding that would be available to study mountain lions if we had them in the state.’’

But, Dickson said, DEEP proceeds on science and evidence. That’s missing with all the mountain lion sightings that occur.

Proof could come from nature cams, which lots of groups and individuals set up to see what’s wandering by. The 1,600-acre Great Hollow Nature Preserve and Ecological Research Center in New Fairfield has such cameras.

But the preserve’s Executive Director Chad Seewagen said there’s no mountain lion footage there.

“We never got one on our cameras,” he said.

Nor, has anyone else.

There’s also the issue of road kills.

Florida is the only state in the eastern U.S. that has a mountain lion population. Florida’s are an endangered species, with maybe only 200 to 230 of the big cats roaming the state’s 67,755 square miles. There are, nevertheless, about 25 panthers killed by cars there every year.

Connecticut has only 5,543 square miles. It has lots of roads and lots of cars on those roads. But other than the 2011 killing on the Wilbur Cross, there’s hasn’t been another confirmed mountain lion-car incident in the state.

Tim Abbott, conservation and Greenprint director for the Housatonic Valley Association, based in Cornwall, said he’s heard many claims of mountain lion sightings over the years.

He’s also heard claims that DEEP doesn’t want to acknowledge their existence because there would be another endangered species to deal with.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern mountain lion extinct in 2011 and removed it from the endangered species list. Therefore Abbott said, those claims go away.

Abbott said if mountain lions were breeding in the state, they’d do well here. Connecticut has lots of woods for cover and lots of white-tailed deer to eat. But, he said, that’s not happening.

Abbott acknowledged that mountain lions out west have huge ranges. It’s conceivable, he said, that like the 2011 mountain lion, which took a two-year journey to Connecticut from South Dakota, others might occasionally turn up here. But he said, the odds of seeing one are “infinitesimally small.”

So why do people see mountain lions? Because, like me, they want to.

They’re big, beautiful predators. They lived here once, before we deforested the state and extirpated them. They’re rare. Seeing one would be rarer still.

Here’s the rub. Lots of bobcats are in the state today. People seeing one for the first time may make the jump to catamount.

“I totally understand,” DEEP’s Dickson said. “But we need the science to back it up.’’

Contact Robert Miller at [email protected]

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