Ask Sam: Why Won't New Hampshire Admit There Are Mountain Lions Here?

Nov 16, 2018

Every other Friday on Morning Edition NHPR’s Sam Evans-Brown tracks down answers to questions about the environment and outdoors for our listeners in a segment we call “Ask Sam.”

Russ, from Sandwich (and Bedford) asks: In Sandwich New Hampshire, everybody has a story about seeing a mountain lion. Lots of people have stories about them, people have them on their game cameras… I mean it’s kind of a thing. But the state always denies it, and none of us know why they deny it. We speculate they don’t want us to screw up tourism… we don’t know what’s going on.

Gotcha, so the Deep State is suppressing mountain lion news in order to prop up New Hampshire tourism? Seems reasonable!

For starters, part of the confusion might come from the fact that the eastern cougar was taken off the endangered species list earlier this year. (Cue the X-Files music: “The Government is denying the cougars exist!”) This decision was primarily for nerdy phylogeny reasons, though, because the eastern cougar probably never existed.

The way that we define species has undergone a revolution with the advent of DNA testing. It all used to be based on measurable physical traits — color, skull size, paw size, etc — but now it’s based on whether an animal can be shown to be genetically distinct from others. Reviewing the evidence, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided all of the cougars, pumas, and mountain lions in the country are actually the same species, and that species hasn’t had a breeding population anywhere near the Northeast for at least 70 years. The best documentation we have in New Hampshire suggests there hasn’t been a mountain lion killed by a hunter in this state since 1885.

What About All the Sightings?

But if people are still seeing mountain lions, why is the state and federal government seeking to COVER IT UP!?

Drop the torches, there, Sparky.

“The state’s never denied mountain lions are here, and they’ve never admitted mountain lions are here. They’ve always said when we have verifiable evidence to say a mountain lion has been, is, or was in the state that we’d acknowledge that and give that information out, “ says Pat Tate, the furbearer biologist with New Hampshire Fish and Game, who insists there’s no conspiracy. “As wildlife biologists, we’d be fascinated to say 'look... look what was found in our state.'”

So what counts as verifiable evidence? DNA from scat or from fur, a clear track that is confirmed by an expert, or a photo that clearly shows a mountain lion. The trouble with accepting every reported sighting as a confirmed mountain lion is that there are so many mistaken identifications. “To date most of the pictures that have been sent in have been bobcats and other species... I’ve received pictures of house cats. I’ve received pictures of dogs at odd angles,” says Tate.

Why are there so many false positives? I’d like to hazard the explanation that we really, really want to see a mountain lion. There are corollaries in other states. For instance, Florida’s wildlife officials have a similar ghost cat: the black panther.

“There's never, ever, ever, ever been a documented case of a black mountain lion. And there are thousands of mountain lions killed every year legally through hunting, and there have been untold tens of thousands of mountain lions killed by hunters over the last hundred years,” says Mark Elbroch, the Puma Program Director for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, “So even the folks who live with mountain lions still have a fancy and see something that’s not there … to me that’s incredible.”

But Absence of Evidence Is Not Evidence of Absence, Right?

This is not the same as saying that there has never been a mountain lion seen in New Hampshire. In fact, Pat Tate concedes that he’s been told of sightings from folks that he considers to be very credible, very woods savvy—people who know what a bobcat looks like—but those folks have never snapped a good photo or found a good track. Having not found any evidence is not the same as saying there are no mountain lions, it’s the same as saying we don’t know.

Which brings us to the next question, what are the odds that some of these reported sightings (which, when I posted about this on twitter, I immediately started to get as well) are actually people seeing a mountain lion? It’s impossible to say, but I think the odds are pretty good that some of these sightings are legit.

It’s actually fairly reasonable to believe that mountain lions do, at least, pass through occasionally. There’s a project called the Cougar Network that tracks verified sightings, and they are all around us: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New York and New Brunswick have all had verified sightings over the past 20 years or so. As recently as 2011 there was one young male mountain lion that cruised all the way from the black hills of South Dakota, up over the Great Lakes, down through New York—getting spotted all along the way—killed a beaver near the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts, left behind prints and DNA at that site, and then was hit by a car in Connecticut.

So if you were to ask me “has a mountain lion ever passed through New Hampshire and been spotted by somebody who wasn’t able to get hard evidence?” I’d personally be willing to say "probably, yes."

But are there mountain lions living in New Hampshire? Mark Elbroch doesn’t think so. He says when you’ve got a mountain lion in town, it’s kinda obvious.

“Mountain lions leave a lot of sign. There’s tracks everywhere. They create these scrapes where they’re communicating with each other with scent. They create these big latrines that are very obvious. They kill big animals. And now that everyone and their mother has a remote camera in their back yard ...  it’s just so, so unlikely that there are resident, breeding mountain lions in New England that are living invisibly among us,” he says, “It’s become Big Foot.”

So that’s the skeptic’s case against.

Me… I’m willing to believe it’s possible that there are some out there. We are the second most-forested state in the country, and those forests can be impenetrable snarls (part of why the Northeast is notoriously a difficult place to hunt deer), and while there are people in a lot of those woods, because the cats have been absent for a few generations now, most of those people don’t know what a cougar scrape or latrine look and smell like. So hey, just me shooting from the hip, maybe there are a couple mountain lions skulking about.  

However, as far as I can tell there’s no Deep State Conspiracy to cover up a breeding population of cougars in the Granite State. BUT THAT SAID, I’d love to be proven wrong. If you’ve got photo trap evidence of a Mountain Lion, send it in, and we'll send it along to the appropriate state or federal agency! We’d love to be part of the first verified sighting.

If you’d like to submit a question (or send a mountain line photo) you can record it as a voice memo on your smart phone and send it to oustidein@nhpr.org, OR call our hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER (1-844-466-8837) and leave a message.