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Mountain lions seen at last?

Nature's Notebook

Last Saturday, a 140-pound male Eastern mountain lion was struck and killed on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford, Conn. There were strong sightings the week before in Greenwich, about 30 miles away, quite possibly the same animal.

The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection is working on the standard hypothesis that this was an illegally held captive animal that somehow got loose, perhaps wandering over from New York, as the eastern mountain lion is officially extinct outside of the Florida panther subspecies.

Preliminary investigation of the specimen, however, confirmed that it had not been neutered or declawed and was a lean animal, which does not strengthen that hypothesis, so they are waiting for DNA tests.

Moose have been known to wander to Long Island Sound, but it is hard to imagine a viable population of cougars becoming established on Connecticut’s Gold Coast. The western mountain lion, however, visits backyard swimming pools and overlaps with encroaching development in the wildland/urban interface. They are expanding their ranges east and, like the coyote before them, it is only a matter of time before a few of these big cats wander into our region (if, indeed, they have not already done so).

Wildlife officials often say that if we had mountain lions here, there would be physical evidence from collisions with cars. There is one such example of that now, and it will be very interesting to learn whether this was truly someone’s pet or a long-ranging pioneer from Illinois and points west.

Along with the returning big cats, we are awaiting the arrival of other new species. The emerald ash borer has reached the Hudson River, and all those official purple bug traps that festoon our roadsides are there in hopes that early detection can help to contain their destructive spread. I fear that in this instance we are well past the time when this killer of trees can be kept out of our region, given its explosive expansion across 15 states and two Canadian provinces since 2002.

The best we can do is try to keep new incursions localized and hope that we can buy enough time for the science of biocontrol to catch up.

Meanwhile, the golden wing warbler is now on track to becoming a candidate species for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. I once saw a Brewster’s warbler, a hybrid of the blue and golden winged warblers, in an orchard in Sheffield, Mass., and here in the Northwest Corner we still have some of the early successional shrubby habitat that this migratory songbird prefers.

Other species rely on large, unbroken areas of forest, sometimes thousands of acres in size, and we have places like that here as well.

No matter how well researchers and wildlife officials believe they understand the habits and distribution of species, however, there is always the exception that proves the rule.

There is at least one current record of the bog turtle east of the Housatonic, although there is no habitat deemed suitable to support a population within miles of where it was found. The bog turtle is on the federal list of threatened species.

My parents are regularly visited by a fisher in their small backyard in the suburbs north of Boston, even though this species (Martes pennanti) is usually found in deep forests. It is not outside the realm of possibility that a noncaptive catamount could be in Connecticut.

Tim Abbott is program director of Housatonic Valley Association’s Litchfield Hills Greenprint. His blog is at greensleeves.typepad.com.