Two of the known mountain lions in New Hampshire have spent their 15 years in close proximity to humans.
But you won’t find evidence of their existence in paw prints in the snow or a deer carcass in a tree. The brother and sister big cats have lived their lives behind a thick pane of glass at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness. They came to the center after their mother was killed in Montana.
They and some cougars (one of many names for mountain lions) at Charmingfare Farm in Candia are the only known mountain lions living in the state.
But that’s always been a topic of debate. In recent years, the number of reported cougar sightings have never dropped below double digits, according to data from New Hampshire’s Fish & Game Department from 2010 to present day.
They peaked in 2012 with 57 sightings; this year, there have been 28.
The Squam Lakes big cats have lives that are quite different from what they may have been had they grown up in Montana. The closest they get to hunting is if an unwise rodent wanders into their pen. Sometimes, when children crowd in front of their exhibit, they’ll paw at the glass and hiss, tails twitching. Spectators get a kick out of the display until they realize the cougars aren’t playing.
“Sometimes the kids don’t realize it, but all the sudden mom realizes that this cat is stalking little Tiffany,” said center director Iain MacLeod. “It kind of freaks them out a little bit.”
Cougars are believed to have died off in New Hampshire in the 1880s after deforestation and hunting drove them to extinction, according to the 1950s book “A History of New Hampshire Game and Furbearers.”
The debate about whether the animals still exist in the state is probably just as old, and it hasn’t changed much in recent years.
“‘Lion’ Sighting Here Doubted” reads a Nashua Telegraph headline from Feb. 21, 1964, on the subject of a possible sighting on Clement Street in Hudson.
And in June of 1967, after the Legislature passed HB 319, which added mountain lions to the list of protected animals in the state, another Telegraph writer remarked: “And it must be all of 50 years since anyone has reported seeing a mountain lion in our state.”
Wildlife experts maintain there’s no proof that a population exists in New Hampshire, although some say there is reason to believe Western cats may be passing through.
Then there are those who believe the cougars never left, and that the government is denying their presence.
In many cases, those deniers submit photos, said New Hampshire Fish and Game furbearer biologist Patrick Tate. An internet search can quickly reveal that most of these images have been around for years, and were taken in other parts of the country.
Whatever side you fall on, it’s clear the conversation isn’t going away any time soon.
The nature of sightings
Tate said he would love to see proof of a mountain lion living in the state.
“I’d be very happy to be proven wrong and end this debate,” he said. “I think it would be cool.”
And there’s “a very real chance” someone in New Hampshire could have seen a mountain lion, he said.
After all, a young male who traveled from South Dakota was sighted in New England a few times before being struck and killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011.
And the Cougar Network, a nonprofit that researches expanding mountain lion populations and how they interact in their environment, has “confirmed” sightings as east as Quebec, according to their website. None of those sightings are in New Hampshire.
Data from Fish and Game show the majority of the 298 reported sightings since 2010 have happened in the southern part of the state. Of those recorded, 12 have no location; with eight recorded sightings, Concord has the most, followed by Swanzey at seven sightings and Amherst, Barrington, Hinsdale and Strafford at six.
The data show few, if any, sightings in Coos County, which is densely forested and has fewer people than the rest of the state. Tate said he didn’t know why that area has fewer sightings.
Those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg; Tate says Fish and Game keeps records that date back to the 1960s.
There’s a difference between a population and just passing through. And Tate said there just isn’t verifiable proof that cougars are living and breeding in the state.
Proof, like fur on a fence, scat on the ground or a paw print in the mud.
Or photographic evidence from the Granite State, not the Rocky Mountains, and of a mountain lion.
Many reports Fish and Game have received over the years include details like “pointed ears” or “short tail” – dead giveaways for a bobcat, Tate said.
It can take multiple department members to check out a claim, Tate said. Often, they’ll go to the site of the viewing to take pictures and get a sense of what the conditions the reported viewing took place in. If possible, they’ll collect any physical evidence for testing.
People aren’t always receptive when their claims are proven wrong.
“They get very frustrated with me when we put the pieces together and things aren’t adding up anymore,” Tate said.
He doesn’t know why people fake sightings.
“In my experience as a lifelong resident in New Hampshire, some people are skeptical of the government,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a ‘Live Free or Die’ thing.”
“Some people see it as a big conspiracy theory,” he said. “… Those thoughts are very deeply ingrained, it doesn’t matter what I say.”
The mystery persists
Like any subject that incites conspiracy and curiosity, some locals have kept their own records.
John Ranta teaches computer science at Souhegan High School. He also collects sighting reports on his blog, simply dubbed, “New Hampshire Mountain Lion.” The blog still gets sightings, most recently on Aug. 3.
Like Tate, he gets a lot of photos and reports, some fakes.
“It bothers me, because my natural inclination is to be a scientist,” he said. “This is an important issue, science is important, we shouldn’t fake it.”
Ranta’s got two guesses as to why people might fake sightings: It’s fun to fool others, or some people so badly want cougars to live in the state, they’ll fake pictures to help support their theory.
But every now and then, he gets a report he thinks is credible.
“There’s a certain matter-of-factness,” he said. “They’ll say they’re a hunter or a fisherman who has been out in the woods for 50 years, as opposed to someone who says they heard a noise in their backyard and played some wildlife noises on their computer and they think it was a mountain lion.”
Aleksander Petakov, a Nashua filmmaker, likes to focus on cryptozoology, or animals that are unusual, hidden or undiscovered. His portfolio includes studying everything from Sasquatch to aquatic monsters in Lake Champlain.
So many people claim they’ve seen a cougar, he figured the subject was worth exploring. His documentary, “Lions of the East,” will premier in the spring.
“It is in its own sense a mystery animal,” he said during a recent interview. “I think it fits squarely into the cryptozoology category, but maybe a little more reasonable than a lake monster.”
Like Fish and Game, Petakov has talked to people who claim they have seen a cougar and visited sighting locations. Many of the people, he said, believe the big cats never left the area.
He wouldn’t say what his own view on the subject was. But out of all the animals he’s heard of, the mountain lion “is probably the most recorded mystery animal in New England, far more than any other creature,” he said.
For John Harrigan, whose nature-writing career, most notably at the Union Leader, spans decades, there’s little doubt mountain lions are not only traveling in the state – they’re denning, too.
Specifically, the Colebrook resident pointed to the Pittsburg, Conway and the Modnadnock region as possible locations, citing the number of what he sees as credible accounts in those areas.
“Less than 10 percent of all the reports I’ve gotten are credible,” he said.
The most critical question is, “What was the most distinguishing characteristic of the animal?” Any answer other than the length of the tail “is worthless,” Harrigan said.
Harrigan said the conversation around mountain lions in the state has “treaded water in the same swimming pool” for decades, in part because of what he sees as Fish and Game’s reluctance to accept the possibility. He was skeptical of the department’s ability to keep track of reported sightings.
“They’ve gotten good at dismissing people,” he said.
But Harrigan admitted he doesn’t understand how, with the proliferation of game cameras and cell phone cameras, more concrete evidence hasn’t come up.
“I’m astounded that we haven’t seen the results of this because of changes in society,” he said. “The odds of capturing one on camera are quadrupled, they’re beyond measurement.”
As for why there are fewer reported sightings in the North County, Harrigan had a guess.
“They may want to protect the cat,” he said. “People may be worried that if they publicize the existence of the creature, someone might put hounds on it.”
For some, there’s there no doubt mountain lions are headed eastward.
For over 40 years, ecologist Susan Morse, founder of national nonprofit Keeping Track, has tracked and studied the habitats of animals like the Canada lynx and mountain lion. She doesn’t think they’re living here, per say, but pointed to collared mountain lions showing up hundreds of miles from their home turf.
“It’s typically males who are hardwired to get out of dodge,” she said, noting the Northeast, with its large stretches of contiguous vegetation and plentiful prey, like beaver, deer and porcupine, would be perfect for young toms looking to breed.
The area lacks one critical element, however – females, she said.
Roads are just one threat cougars face, Morse said. And as hunting quotas increase in the country’s Western states, she worries that irreversible damage may be done to a species that has only recently made a comeback in some areas.
In Nebraska, for instance, cougars started coming back in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that a female and her kittens became the first-known breeding population in over 100 years, the Lincoln Journal Starreported in June.
Utah’s decision to up its mountain lion hunting quota this year didn’t sit well with conservationists and local hunters, but ranchers said an uptick in animals have drastically affected their livestock and some wildlife officials said the move could “buoy” deer and elk populations, according to an August Salt Lake Tribune article.
But mountain lions aren’t like deer, whose populations can rebound after a tough winter, Morse said. And there’s no good science on the best way to manage predators, she said.
“When you’re only managing for recreation, you’re only managing for people who want to kill them,” she said.
Hunting creates problems in the mountain lion social structure, Morse said. Killing a female can kill up to 15 future cougars, she said. And when a resident male is killed off, a new male moves into the area and kills their cubs.
“I’ve had many a biologist tell me that if cougars get here naturally, we’ll protect them,” she said. “But they’re not going to get here naturally without protection at the source.”