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Connecticut Mountain Lion: Why and How He Got Here

State officials are still piecing together information about what they're calling one cougar's "amazing" journey.

Connecticut Mountain Lion: Why and How He Got Here

The assertion Tuesday by Connecticut officials that a young, male mountain lion from South Dakota to the Nutmeg State begged as many questions as it answered.

Foremost among them:

  • How did the cougar did get so far, crossing rivers and other obstacles?
  • Why did it travel so far from home?
  • How— based on such scattered evidence as a carcass, reported sightings and paw prints—were scientists able to piece together evidence of what they’re calling one of the longest-ever recorded journeys of a land mammal?

June 5 in Greenwich, Conn., officials with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection say that same animal likely—though not definitively, pending more tests—was the mountain lion on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Conn.

Officials used DNA to genetically fingerprint the mountain lion as the same one spotted more than 18 months ago in Minnesota.

“The journey of this mountain lion is a testament to the wonders of nature and the tenacity and adaptability of this species,” Connecticut DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty said during a press briefing. “This mountain lion traveled a distance of more than 1,500 miles from its original home in South Dakota – representing one of the longest movements ever recorded for a land mammal and nearly double the distance ever recorded for a dispersing mountain lion.”

Even with so much DNA evidence and testing, what’s known about the mountain lion—his journey's exact route and reasons for taking it—remain unclear.

We know this:

  • The cougar had porcupine quills lodged in its skin, discovered by lab technicians during a necropsy, or animal autopsy.
  • The 140-pound male's estimated age is two to five years old.
  • It was lean, and hadn’t been declawed or neutered.
  • It was spotted three times—in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Connecticut—before a collision with a SUV on a highway ended its life.

“Although this is the story of one extraordinary animal who did end in a tragic death on a highway here, the first recorded example of a wild mountain lion in Connecticut in more than 100 years, I must add that we have no evidence of a native population,” Esty said. “No evidence of a mountain lion beyond this single individual.”

The cougar’s body is now frozen, pending further studies. Its body may end up in a museum, state officials confirmed. Inquiries already have been made.

What follows is a look at what else Connecticut officials said Tuesday in their press briefing, in a statement and in a question-and-answer session with the media.

Why?

  • Paul Rego, a supervising wildlife biologist with the DEEP, during the press conference: “In mammals in general, the young disperse, especially young males. There is probably debate among ecologists what the fundamental reasons are. It may be looking for breeding opportunities, may be looking for open habitat where there’s no competition with other animals and in the case of males, and food resources. It’s a very common behavior of some adult male mammals, very common behavior for some adult cougars.”
  • Esty: "I think there are potentially lots of reasons why this animal left South Dakota, but Paul is giving you the most likely ones, which are a foraging animal looking for easier food sources and this guy clearly had an adventurous spirit and chose to a little further from home than most. And it may well have been that there was a trail of opportunity that led to Connecticut."

How?

  • Rego: "Most of these sightings (see blue and green map, as well as 'Wisconsin Cougar Observations,' attached) are believed to be this animal that eventually made it to Connecticut. The first observation was in Minnesota, December 2009. The animal moved east-southeasterly into Wisconsin in January 2010, was subsequently documented in more northerly Wisconsin in Feburary 2010 and there is strong belief that then it continued to move easterly and a trail-cam photo taken in May 2010 and a nearby trail-cam photo in Minnesota are believed to be the same animal. Now, these are all verifications of mountain lions on this map. They are not all verifications of this particular mountain lion, but some are. At four of these sites, through snow tracking and collecting scats or droppings from the animal, collecting hair, collecting blood, they are actually able to genetically fingerprint it. So at four of these sites, the Minnesota site … these were genetically fingerprinted to be this animal in Connecticut. It’s a very surprising result to us, to the folks in Wisconsin and the people doing the genetics work.”
  • Rego, responding to a question on how mountain lions could cross rivers: “It’s not certain how they cross. They must swim. There have been numerous documentations of them crossing large watercourses. An example of a female crossing the largest river in Utah recently was published; large canals in Florida are crossed by what they call ‘Florida panthers.’ The rivers do probably present a barrier but not an insurmountable barrier. There have been a number of documented mountain lions in Wisconsin and Illinois that had to have crossed the Mississippi River … During wintertime, small rivers if they have ice then that’s not much of a barrier for crossing.”

How Do They Know?

  • DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Frechette: "While the results we’re presenting here today are very convincing, we are continuing with genetic and isotope testing in an effort to determine just how this animal got from Wisconsin to Connecticut … We also want to try and understand just what this animal subsisted on during its time in the wild and how we can better determine its lifespan during its time in the wild in Wisconsin and Connecticut."
  • Rego: “[There was] no evidence of captivity. We do admit that was our suspicion, just given extraordinary distances, so part of our exam was tissue for genetic testing to several labs across the United States—our necropsy, or animal autopsy. The Rocky Mountain Research Station wildlife genetics lab did come back with a result for us that this animal matched very well genetically with mountain lions fro m the South Dakota population. They have a number of tissues banked from different regions of North America and this was a very good match. Subsequently, they examined this specific animal’s DNA and they compared it to certain outlying animals, outside of that South Dakota region to come up with a match and, amazingly, one was found. It matched an animal that was well documented, traveling through Wisconsin."
  • From the DEEP press release: “The genetic tests reveal information about the mountain lion’s origin and travels were conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Montana. DNA tests show that tissue from the Milford mountain lion matches the genetic structure of the mountain lion population in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. The Forest Service lab also compared the Milford mountain lion’s DNA to DNA samples collected from individual animals occurring outside of the core South Dakota population. This led to a match with DNA collected from an animal whose movements were tracked in Minnesota and Wisconsin from late 2009 through early 2010. DNA from the Connecticut specimen exactly matched DNA collected from an individual mountain lion at one site in Minnesota and three sites in Wisconsin. The Midwestern DNA samples were obtained by collecting scat (droppings), blood and hair found while snow tracking the mountain lion at locations where sightings of the animal were confirmed. In addition, at least a half dozen confirmed sightings of a mountain lion in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are believed to be of the same animal. The distance between the first documentation in Minnesota and the spot where the animal was killed by a vehicle is nearly 1,000 miles and is nearly double the longest distance previously recorded for a dispersing mountain lion. Dispersal is a normal behavior of young male mountain lions searching for females but they seldom travel more than 100 miles. The path of the mountain lion led Wisconsin biologists to dub the male cat the 'St. Croix Mountain lion,' after the first county where a confirmed sighting of it occurred."

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