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Levin: If I Live Long Enough To See The Catamount In Vermont Again...

Toby Talbot
A fiberglass catamount sculpture painted by artist Suzanne Little-Stefanik is displayed at the Statehouse on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt.

Last week US Fish and Wildlife officially declared the Eastern Catamount extinct... kaput, vanished... the last official sighting having been in 1938, in the bleak outback of northern Maine. Related: "It's Official: Feds Declare The Catamount Extinct" [Jan. 24, 2018, VPR]

But I still hope to live long enough to see Catamounts in Vermont again — not just one or two, but viable breeding populations that hone the senses and mobility of deer; keeping them perpetually on the lookout for silent, six-foot-long predators, with explosive, spring-loaded hind legs, white, velvety muzzles and honey-colored hides; hemispheric cats with a roster of names that match their remarkable distribution.

I know it could be a long wait - but maybe not forever.

To reach us, mountain lions would have to venture out of South Florida or the Nebraska panhandle, the two closest resident populations. The journey would be a rather impressive walkabout, but it can be done, has been done, and will continue to be attempted.

In December 2009, a three-year-old male left the Black Hills of South Dakota and wandered east for two years and two thousand miles, until it was stopped by an SUV in Connecticut. Its trek may have been the most documented cross-country trip since Lewis and Clark, and the farthest terrestrial journey ever recorded for a wild American mammal.

The cat appeared six times on camera, left footprints and deer kills, and DNA samples in urine, scat and tufts of hair. It was photographed near Lake George and may very well have traveled down the Taconic Range along the rim of western Vermont. A transient male, it may have been looking to establish a permanent territory, while avoiding a confrontation with a resident adult male, the leading source of lion mortality.

Although mountain lions have only recently returned to South Dakota this was not the first cat to leave. They’ve already colonized the Nebraska panhandle, and more than a dozen have been killed across the Midwest, including within the city limits of Chicago.

This Magellan-like lion offered us a glimpse into the ecological nature of an alpha predator and its effect on the complacent deer and the landscapes they share, a lesson on the "ecology of fear" — and how reawakening a fear deep within the ungulates translates into healthier, sustainable ecosystems — the wolves of Yellowstone are another noteworthy example.

I still have faith the Catamounts will reach us eventually.

And once they get here... I hope we let them stay.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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