MONTPELIER, Vt. — A Vermont animal tracker known nationally for her expertise in tracking cougars believes the big cats will eventually return to the Northeastern United States and neighboring parts of Canada, but she says the region won't see large numbers of them anytime soon.
The forests of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York have ideal cougar habitat, meaning plentiful forest cover and large animals to sustain a cougar population, said Sue Morse of Jericho, the science director and founder of the organization Keeping Track.
"Back in the '80s, I just looked at that huge expanse of country between the Rockies, the western slope of the Rockies and here, and I thought to myself 'how can this happen?'" said Morse.
Since then, scientists have tracked the animals moving out of South Dakota into Midwestern states. Cougars also are moving north into Manitoba, the Canadian province to the west of Ontario, which Morse considers their most likely route back to the Northeast.
"We need our apex carnivores in a big way," Morse said. "We need them for the health of our forests. Our forests are being ravaged by too many deer in some places."
The animals are known by a variety of names: mountain lion, puma, panther, catamount. Vermont's last known cougar was killed in 1881 in Barnard. The animal, now stuffed, is on display at the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier.
"It's a known fact that dispersing tom cougars will go hundreds, if not thousands of miles as they search for a habitat in which they can settle down in the company of females and call home," said Morse, who is planning a lecture on the topic Jan. 7 in Richmond.
The challenge is the females are more likely to stay near their home range, but they too will sometimes move into new territory, she said.
Scientists say sightings of individual cougars are possible, but they're skeptical that breeding populations of cougars will return to the region on their own.
Mary Parkin, endangered species recovery coordinator for the Northeast Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, agrees the region has suitable habitat for cougars and male cougars do pass through.
"The trick is getting that female there, they would have to be brought in," she said, adding that was unaware of any effort to bring cougars back to the Northeast.
Mark Scott, director of wildlife for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, said his agency regularly receives reports of cougar sightings and it's possible that individual cougars could be spotted in Vermont, but he calls the possibility of a breeding population returning to the state "a long shot."
"It used to be if someone saw a mountain lion they'd say 'I'm not going to tell anybody because they're going to think I'm crazy,'" Scott said. "But people shouldn't feel that way today. There really is a possibility that if they see a large cat, obviously it needs to have a long tail ... they could be seeing the real thing."
Other scientists say there's no question the animals are moving far from what is considered their current range. In 2011, a cougar was hit by a car and killed on a Connecticut highway. Subsequent DNA testing found that the animal was from South Dakota.
Morse said the animals regularly confound scientists by doing the unexpected. It could take 30 years (Morse hopes less) for a breeding population to return.
"I am looking forward to seeing how these animals pull it off because I'm convinced they will," she said.