The headlines were shocking enough to rattle even the most hardened suburbanite: A mountain lion, it seemed, was lurking in Winchester. Police in the quiet community north of Boston were convinced of it—convinced enough to warn residents with a reverse 911 call. And just like that, across town, a new fear was born. Mothers and dog-walkers began scanning the horizon for a predator.
“Cougars everywhere. Everybody’s seeing them. Aliens. Bigfoot. Just the whole thing,” said Tom French, the assistant director of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, which has been forced to address the concerns. “In this case, though, there’s a portion of it that’s reality.”
French doesn’t believe a mountain lion, also known as a cougar, is stalking Winchester. The evidence, he said, leaves “absolutely no uncertainty” that the mysterious animal leaving tracks in the snow recently is either a coyote or a dog. But the possibility is not the stuff of myth: Mountain lions and wolves—large predators—are indeed starting to make inroads into New England. “They really are here sometimes,” French said. And experts believe that within a decade or two the animals, which disappeared from Massachusetts more than 150 years ago, could be back in much larger numbers.
“The eastern border of the range of mountain lions is moving progressively more and more east, and it’s only a matter of time until it reaches all the way to the East Coast,” said Noah Charney, a wildlife ecologist and animal tracking expert who has worked with the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program for the past seven years. “I sort of suspect that all of a sudden one day we’re going to know there are mountain lions here. There’s going to be no question. And it might happen really fast. It might be a family moves in, they start breeding, and within a few years, there’s a whole lot of them.”
Learning to coexist once again with long-vanished wildlife isn’t a new issue in New England. In recent years, Massachusetts has seen an explosion in the populations of beavers, turkeys, deer, and bears, creating a host of problems: beaver dams flooding neighborhoods, turkeys chasing pedestrians, deer scampering across highways in the night. But the return of mountain lions—animals known to kill pets, livestock, and, on rare occasions, even humans—is something altogether different, an event that would surely change the way we walk through the woods and play in our yards, if nothing else.
State wildlife officials say they have policies in place in handle this eventuality. But culturally, given the recent uproar in Winchester, it’s clear we’re not entirely prepared to live once again with predators, ones our ancestors wanted to kill so badly they paid people to haul in their carcasses and cheered when they died out altogether. “Are we going to be happy about having brought them back? I don’t know,” Charney admitted. “It’s easy to love nature when it’s not scary or dangerous.”
In the beginning, early settlers in New England faced plenty of dangers. No one can say for sure just how many mountain lions or wolves were prowling the forests at the time. But they were here, said Marion Larson, the chief of information and education for the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Colonists didn’t like them. And she can pinpoint exactly when they were killed off in Massachusetts.
The wolf was a problem as early as 1630, when, according to historical records, officials started paying people to kill them. By 1750, wolves had been eradicated from eastern Massachusetts. And less than 60 years later, the state was down to just two—a pair of lone wolves, records say, ranging from Amherst to Montague, until, inevitably, they too were killed in 1805.
The eastern cougar, as the mountain lion native to New England was known, hung around a bit longer, but ultimately met the same fate. The last one was gunned down in Massachusetts in 1858—a detail important enough at the time to be logged in town reports. “In many cases there were bounties on those animals. And the bounties were paid by the town,” Larson said. “They were considered a major predator on livestock.”
Farmers presumably welcomed the news, but mountain lions were doomed in the East for lots of reasons at the time. Forests had been cut down and plowed into farms, deer populations killed off. There was less habitat and fewer prey animals. According to research published by two Massachusetts biologists, the eastern cougar basically ceased to exist anywhere in the East by 1906. The animal, they wrote, was “a vanishing species,” as were turkeys, beavers, and bears—an idea that at least one prominent Massachusetts resident mourned in the 19th century. (From a scientific perspective, it’s unclear whether the eastern cougar was actually distinct from the western one; most biologists now believe all the North American cougars were of one species.)
“Henry Thoreau describes the muskrat as the largest wild animal in central and eastern Massachusetts,” said David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, the university’s center for forestry research. “It was a beautiful agricultural landscape with scattered woodlands. But it didn’t have any of the large mammals. So the expectation in the 19th century would have been that agriculture would just keep growing, that human domination across the whole landscape would increase, and that forests would get smaller.”
Instead, in Massachusetts, the opposite has happened. As farmers moved west—or just gave up—trees returned. According to Harvard Forest, roughly 80 percent of the state is woodland today, compared to about 40 percent in the mid-1800s. With the trees—oak and birch, pine and hemlock—have come the animals again, sometimes with the helpful nudge of biologists, sometimes on their own. In the last century alone, the population of deer across Massachusetts has increased 18-fold, to roughly 90,000, stocking the woods with plenty of prey. As Larson put it, the table in Massachusetts is set. “There’s an abundance of prey here,” she said. “Mountain lions could prey on a whole bunch of critters here—in quantity.”
In the Midwest, it’s already happening. Populations of mountain lions are growing and creeping ever eastward—into Nebraska, Missouri, and Wisconsin, a state that until recently hadn’t recorded cougars in more than a century. “They’re only rarely getting this far,” French said.
Still, occasional cougars from points west are beginning to visit the area. State officials confirmed the presence of a mountain lion near the Quabbin Reservoir in the late 1990s. More recently, in 2011, a mountain lion roamed Connecticut before being hit and killed by a car. This was no exotic pet: Genetic testing showed the 140-pound cat had traveled 1,500 miles from South Dakota. And on at least one other occasion in recent years, there were reports of a different predator stalking sheep in Western Massachusetts. “Lo and behold, this wasn’t a 50-pound coyote,” French said. It was an 85-pound gray wolf, proving, yes, our habitat was back, all right.
“If there were mountain lions here, they’d probably do fine,” Charney said. “So now all we’re doing is just waiting for them to show up.”
While we wait, officials have come up with a plan. Since the mid-1990s, Massachusetts has employed a Large Animal Response Team—a collection of state wildlife biologists and Environmental Police officers trained to deal with bears, moose, and other creatures. If a mountain lion posed a threat, the team could be called upon to handle it. But short of that, a large cat would be safeguarded under state statute—a welcome visitor, like any other indigenous animal. “It would be exciting as heck if there were wild mountain lions,” Larson said. “It would be exciting, and they would be afforded protection.”
Not everyone would be so thrilled. Out west, people have blamed the resurgent cougar for killing livestock or wiping out deer. To control the population, states have authorized cougar hunts. Some scientists have argued that the hunts have only destabilized the population, flooding areas with young males who are more likely to stir up trouble. And then there’s the problem of what Foster called “human expectations, human reactions.”
It’s hard enough for some residents to get along with the animals that are already here, especially when those animals move into suburbia. Last year, for example, officials had to confront a bear that had wandered into a neighborhood of Newton near the commuter train tracks and the Massachusetts Turnpike; eventually, for the sake of public safety, they decided it had to be killed. Substitute a mountain lion—a predator that might attack the family dog or stalk a child—and things could get even dicier. “Many of them will be shot in the process,” Foster predicted. “We could tolerate them,” he added. “I don’t think we will tolerate them.”
One solution, French suggested, is education. Wildlife officials routinely give talks across the state, teaching people how to live with the animals in their neighborhoods. Maybe it’s time, French said, to develop a talk on mountain lions—even if they aren’t yet here.
But he admits that talks alone aren’t likely to put people at ease. The potential return of mountain lions comes at time when many people live in a way that’s largely disconnected from nature. Those who do enjoy the outdoors venture into the New England woods knowing they are mostly safe on their hikes. For many decades now, there have been few creatures out there with any potential to threaten us, aside from deer ticks, perhaps, and bees.
Charney counts himself among those lovers of the outdoors. He lives in Sunderland, Mass., and enjoys taking walks in the forest at night. He says he’d still do it if mountain lions were here.
In the beginning, though, he admits he’d be nervous—of the unknown. What might the mountain lions do? How will we react? What if something tragic happens because we are unprepared? “That could be a bad way,” Charney said, “to start off the decade of mountain lions.”Freelance writer Keith O’Brien is a former staff writer for the Globe and the author of the book “Outside Shot,” chronicling one town’s lonely quest for basketball greatness. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.