Monday, October 19, 2020

No Mountain Lions in New Jersey. So Far

A Utah runner's October 2020 encounter with a female mountain lion 

Despite rumors otherwise, New Jersey has never officially reported a mountain lion (cougar) in modern times. Earlier posts here have had a lot of visitors and comments about sightings of this big cat in the state, but nothing official. The NJDEP has regularly reported that the species does not exist in the wild here.

BUT, a Reuters report from back in 2011 was about a mountain lion killed on a Connecticut highway in Greenwich, which leads people to believe finding one in NJ is not impossible.

Genetic testing on that cougar showed it had come from South Dakota. That means it moved about 1500 miles eastward before being killed on the Wilbur Cross Parkway about 70 miles from New York City, genetic tests confirmed this week. Testing also showed that it had been in Minnesota and Wisconsin in late 2009 and 2010. 

Greenwich is only about a 40-mile journey away from a place like Alpine, NJ - if the cougar can make it over the Hudson River.

So should we expect a mountain lion to make it to northern new Jersey one day?

This was a rare case and is twice the distance of any mountain lion was previously known to have gone. It was the first recorded confirmation of a wild mountain lion in Connecticut in more than 100 years.

Intensive hunting following European colonization of the Americas and the ongoing human development into cougar habitat has caused the cougar populations to drop in most parts of its historical range. In particular, the North American cougar is considered to have been mostly extirpated in eastern North America (the population referred to as the eastern cougar) at the beginning of the 20th century. The exception is the isolated Florida panther subpopulation. Any reports in our area are thought to be misidentification or possibly a cat that escaped from captivity.

Ironically, it was in 2011 that the eastern cougars were unofficially deemed extinct by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eastern U.S. reported sightings have come up in many states. Mark Dowling, co-founder of the Eastern Cougar Network said in 2003 that sightings in the eastern half of the nation, would "almost certainly" be escaped captives, but he added that the notion that (western) cougars "will eventually reach New Jersey" is a reasonable prediction, in part due to increased populations of white-tailed deer. Cougars found far in the east are seen as being of western origin.

The Cougar Network is a nonprofit research organization dedicated to studying cougar-habitat relationships and the role of cougars in ecosystems. The nearest confirmed sightings they list are in Connecticut.

The video above went viral and appeared widely on social media and TV this month showing a runner in Utah who was "stalked" by a mother cougar after coming too close to her and her cubs on a trail. He initially thought the animals were bobcats but the female mountain lion followed him for six minutes and then left on its own.

For now, I will say that your best chance to see one in our state is to visit Big Cat Country at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange.

Before you report a mountain lion (cougar, puma, catamount or any version of Puma concolor) to the authorities, check to see if it looks like the ones in this zoo video below. 

So far, no one has reported to me that they saw a jaguar in the state. You can see those at the zoo too.

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