Spotted: Big Predators in New England

November 3, 2015
Don’t give big predators reasons to bug you. Simple precautions should keep your campsite bear-free.

The writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau famously mourned how tame the wilderness of his day had become. On his rambles in mid-19th century Massachusetts, he saw no cougar, wolf, bear, moose, deer, beaver, or turkey. These and other animals had been displaced or killed outright, their forested habitats transformed into active farmland.

Now, as much of the Northeast reverts to forest, the region is home once again to most of the animals Thoreau missed. Black bears are common, at an estimated 4,500 in Massachusetts (up from 100 about 30 years ago), and bobcats number roughly 1,000. Coyotes, which are not native to the commonwealth but crossed its borders about 60 years ago, are now “in every city and town,” according to Laura Conlee, a wildlife biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. But confirmed visits to Massachusetts by mountain lions (also known as cougars, panthers, and pumas) and wolves remain exceedingly rare, she says.

The proliferation of larger predators may make the region’s woods seem scarier, but Conlee suggests such fears may be exaggerated.

“Just because we have these predators around—bobcats, coyotes, and bears—doesn’t mean it’s no longer safe” to enjoy the outdoors, she says. “You just need to learn what to do to keep them away from your campsite.”

Conlee recommends taking simple precautions to discourage animals seeking an easy meal. When camping, this means storing food and toiletries in bearproof containers or hanging them high and far from where you sleep. Some hikers attach bells to their trekking poles to keep bears away, although most wild animals will hear and smell people coming and withdraw. “If you see an animal while you’re hiking, it’s usually a lucky chance thing,” Conlee says.

While several large predators are now thriving in the Northeast, the creatures captivating some residents’ imaginations, wolves and mountain lions, are not. Despite repeated reports of sightings, “We’ve had one documented wolf in more than 100 years in the state, in 2007,” Conlee says. “And we’ve had two confirmed reports of mountain lions: one from DNA evidence in scat in 1997 and one from tracks in 2011.”

When a young adult male mountain lion was struck and killed by an SUV in Milford, Conn., in 2011, DNA analysis showed the animal had traveled 1,800 miles, raising speculation that it might have left the tracks found in Massachusetts a few months earlier.

For all other recent sightings of wolves and mountain lions in Massachusetts, there either has been no verifiable evidence or the evidence has shown the animal to be another species: a bobcat, coyote, deer, fisher, or even a domestic dog or cat. Hoax photographs circulating on the Internet have fueled false beliefs that wolves and mountain lions are resurgent.

Maine, too, has had reports of mountain lion sightings, but none has been confirmed. “I think some people probably have seen a cougar,” says Walter Jakubas, the mammal group leader for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “But it’s our contention that these sightings are probably related to animals that were released or escaped from captivity.”

As for wolves, Jakubas says that an occasional lone animal has likely made its way down from Canada, but that’s a challenging journey. “There’s quite a gauntlet they’d have to run,” he says of the route between Maine and the nearest known breeding population of wolves, in Ontario, Canada, north of the St. Lawrence River.

For now, breeding pairs of wolves and mountain lions remain west of the northeastern United States. “The dispersers could increase, but I don’t think we’ll have a breeding population soon,” Conlee says. “Right now, Massachusetts is bear country.”

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Heather Stephenson

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