The Phantom of Vermont

The light was failing and I was on my way out of the woods. The old logging road was easy enough to navigate and I let my feet follow it while I kept my eyes up and scanning. Things seem to move at twilight and you never know.

These were old growth woods and the canopy had kept the ground cover down, so I could see three or four hundred yards ahead of me but not clearly, because of the gloom. Perfect conditions, then, for thinking you saw something. Interesting how tree stumps or boulders assume the shape of an animal in this kind of light.

But my eyes picked up something and I knew, right away, that it was alive. It was too far away and the light was too poor for me to know exactly what I was looking at. Could be a deer, but it didn’t seem to be tall enough.


Maybe, I thought, but the shape seemed wrong. This animal was too long in the body and blunt in the head.

Could it be …

Whatever it was, it was standing motionless and, I thought, looking back at me as intently as I was staring at it.

A cat?

I had a pair of good binoculars in my coat pocket. I wished it were a camera with a long lens to document the sighting. I’d need proof if I wanted people to believe me.

I moved very carefully to get my hand in my pocket and my fingers around the glasses. Raised them carefully to my eyes. In the few seconds that this took, I had convinced myself that I was looking at a mountain lion. I had seen only one in my life and it was not in Vermont, where the mountain lion was officially “extinct,” the last one having been killed in 1881. Its mounted carcass is on display in Montpelier where I’d seen it when I was the adult supervision for my daughter’s sixth-grade class trip to the capital. Looking at the mounted animal, behind the glass, had made me feel kind of … well, sad.

People said that the catamount—as the animal is called in Vermont—was still around and you heard stories about someone who would swear to having seen one. I was agnostic, I suppose, on these stories which the state wildlife biologists inevitably found impossible to substantiate and, often, easy to disprove. Still, I wanted to believe those sightings were real. The Vermont woods would be a lot more interesting with mountain lions in them.

And, now, here I was. Face to face, maybe, with a sure enough catamount.

The glasses I carried were of good quality with exceptional light-gathering property. I’d splurged on them. Anticipating, perhaps, a moment like this.

I got the glasses to my eyes and focused on the animal. It had moved a little and was standing unconcealed, now, in the middle of the logging road. I had a clear look, through the glasses at … a bobcat.

That was plain, right away. The animal was too small and it lacked the long, sinuous tail of the catamount. Lacked, almost any tail at all, for that matter. It was a striking animal, certainly, but it was no mountain lion.

It fled when I resumed my walk down the logging road and on to my truck. I went back and told the tale to anyone who would listen. And, more often than not, when I told it, the person listening would nod and tell me about someone who had definitely seen a mountain lion/catamount in the Vermont woods or crossing a highway or, even, in the back yard.

These sightings usually took place at night or in fading light, like that of my bobcat encounter. They were inevitably fleeting. There was never, of course, a photograph. But there was certainty, or near-certainty, on the part of the witnesses who, it seemed, would swear to having seen a catamount. Not a bobcat or a coyote or a fisher or anything else that might be mistaken for a mountain lion.

I was curious enough at the time to do a little research. First about the animal, itself, and then about the lore and the possibility that the catamount was not, in fact, extinct in Vermont.

The animal, I learned, is called many things: mountain lion, panther, catamount, puma, cougar and more. It has, in fact, more names than any animal in the world.

That it had, somehow, made a return and established residence.

The animal, I learned, is called many things: mountain lion, panther, catamount, puma, cougar and more. It has, in fact, more names than any animal in the world. Its range was once similarly vast; from the high north regions of the Yukon to the Straits of Magellan. In the United States the animal could, at one time, be found in all the states but with civilization, came a decline, the Vermont experience being more or less typical. As land was cleared for farming and the cat’s prey species declined in number, it went after livestock. In Vermont, in the late 19th century, this meant, especially, sheep. When that last catamount was killed by a deer hunter, the state was paying a $20 bounty for pelts or carcasses.

By the late 20th century, the range of the catamount was confined to several western states and a small remnant population along the Gulf Coast that was eventually squeezed down into the Everglades/Big Cypress area of Florida and reduced to a couple of dozen animals of poor genetic quality due to inbreeding. (The cat I saw when I was a young boy was on the Gulf Coast.)

Everglades Panther
This Everglades panther population has recently recovered after wildlife biologists brought in some animals from Texas to breed with the last few native cats and this story is typical of the conservation ethic that has taken hold in the United States. As cleared lands became reforested, many species that had been squeezed into small regions where there was still habitat, or hunted to near extinction, could be replanted in their former range. Wildlife management programs succeeded in reintroducing species to areas where they had not been seen for years. In Vermont, for instance, a few dozen wild turkeys from Pennsylvania were released in 1969 and multiplied into the thousands we have here now. And, then, some species didn’t need any help from humans but managed to extend their range into now-recovered and suitable habitats. Coyotes, for instance, found their way into Vermont with no help. Also moose.

And, according to people who swear they know what they saw… the catamount.

And why not? In recent years, it has been expanding its range elsewhere; moving into mid-western states like Illinois and Missouri from its established range in the Rocky Mountain states and the Dakotas. Large swaths of Vermont and nearby states along the Appalachian spine have gone from cleared land back to the kind of second-growth forest that is excellent habitat for deer and, thus, their predators, the most efficiently lethal of which is the mountain lion.

So if coyotes could return and establish robust populations, why not a few catamounts? And, if those people who said they were seeing catamounts were wrong, and not just making it up, then what were they seeing?

“Most of those sightings were misidentifications,” Doug Blodgett says. “These things happen suddenly and they are over quickly. If there is a follow up investigation, it turns out that people were mistaken about what they saw.”

For several years, Blodgett, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, conducted those follow up investigations. This was after the department sent him out west to study the behavior of mountain lions. He worked, in Wyoming and Arizona, with other professionals, some with government agencies, like the one he works for, and others who were hunters and trappers, often employed by ranchers who had lost stock to mountain lions.

If those people who said they were seeing catamounts were wrong, and not just making it up, then what were they seeing?

“They knew what they were doing,” Blodgett says. “There was one young kid, in his 20’s, who had been doing it since he was in high school and he walked and thought like a cat. If there was an animal out there, killing stock, he would find it.”

This man, and others, taught Blodgett how to look for sign and, he says, “You learn pretty quickly that if there is an animal in the area, it will leave sign. Scat, tracks, lays, scratch mounds … you’ll see these things.”

So Blodgett brought what he had learned in Wyoming and Arizona back to Vermont with him and began following up on catamount sightings.

“Some of them,” he says, “we could close the books on pretty quickly. If someone described seeing a ‘black panther,’ for example, then you knew right away and you didn’t need to do any more investigating.”

But some sightings were more promising and some seemed exceedingly so. Blodgett did on-site investigations of these, in what became a predictably futile search for the sign he had learned, out west, to look for.

“The evidence,” he says, “just wasn’t there.”

Mountain Lions Revisit Kill Sites
Some people thought that the Fish and Wildlife professionals went into these investigations determined to debunk the sightings. Actually, Blodgett says, something of the opposite was true. If he was not determined to prove that someone had actually seen a mountain lion in Vermont—he is a scientist, after all—he was still excited by the possibility. Especially by one that he remembers involving “a kill site.”

Among the mountain lion’s typical behaviors is the way it will revisit, for several days, the carcass of an animal it has killed, moving it and cacheing it until there is nothing left to eat or the flesh has turned. In this case, there was the carcass of a deer, recently killed in the area where a couple had reported seeing what looked like a mountain lion on land they owned.

“It looked real promising,” Blodgett remembers. But there was not enough evidence to either prove or disprove that a mountain lion had done the killing. But the landowners were excited enough by the possibility that, persuaded by Blodgett, they bought a trail camera and set it up on the site.

“We got a picture of our culprit,” he says, “that very first night.”

It was a bobcat.

Several years of doing the follow-ups, then, convinced Blodgett that there were no catamounts in Vermont. He never found the evidence. And, he says, if they were here, wouldn’t one have been killed on one of the state’s highways where cars and trucks travel some 9 million miles every year?

There was one possibility that might account for some of these sightings, he says. People could have been looking at a catamount that was not, in fact, a wild animal. According to official estimates, as many as 1,000 people own, in spite of legal prohibitions, captive animals. As pets or for exhibit. Escapes by these animals were not impossible. And some people might decide to release them into the wild rather than keeping them in their possession. So it is possible that, on occasion, someone would catch a glimpse of one of these animals.

Spring Loaded to See Something
My own inclination, for the little it matters, is to side with the professionals like Blodgett. I go out into the woods on the opening day of deer season every year and a lot of other Vermonters are out there with me. All of us with rifles, most of them scoped. Some with cameras. All with eyes to see and spring loaded to see something. All those deer hunters represent a kind of ad hoc search party. They may not be looking, specifically, for a catamount. But they would certainly pay attention if they did see one.

In my case, I had seen just about everything else in the Vermont woods in the several years that I had been going out, and not just during deer season. I had seen bear, deer, coyotes, foxes, that one bobcat … all the usual suspects. But never a catamount.

But I learned something else in my ad hoc researches—namely that this was a question that aroused a lot of passion in people. Especially among those who did believe.

Nostalgia for the Wild
I thought about why this might be and the best I could come up with for an answer is that we feel a kind of nostalgia for the wild. This could, of course, be projection on my part. I’d been excited to read the news that wildlife officials would be releasing wolves in Yellowstone and thrilled, a few years later, when I heard, from a campsite on Slough Creek, the music of their howling. Something I had not expected ever to experience.

A deer is a wild animal and it is always a pleasure to see one—unless it is in the high beams, at night. But a deer is not a predator, like a bear can be, and certainly not a pure predator like a mountain lion, which is a majestic animal precisely because it is also a dangerous one. In the states where there are robust mountain lion populations, they are a threat to livestock, pets and, occasionally, humans.

The mountain lion can weigh upwards of 200 pounds and it can move like … well, like a cat. It can run 50 miles an hour and clear a twelve-foot fence. It kills to eat but does not necessarily practice any sort of conservation ethic.

If the mountain lion is a certified killer of sheep and, sometimes, cattle, it has also occasionally attacked humans. There was, in California last year, a case of a mountain lion seriously injuring a six-year old who was walking a trail in Silicon Valley country. And there have been fatal attacks.

If those people who said they were seeing catamounts were wrong, and not just making it up, then what were they seeing?

Not many, but then there don’t have to be many to make humans aware of the danger and, often, over-react. Those who believe the growth and expansion of mountain lion populations to be a good thing routinely make the old, “you face a greater danger of being struck by lighting or drowned in the bathtub…” argument and it is no doubt accurate. But it is also true that there is something different and especially chilling about the threat of being attacked by something that is alive and wants to devour you. There is a reason that millions of people were afraid to go in the water after they saw the movie Jaws. And, in the real world, a black bear’s fatal attack on a hiker in New Jersey last year made many people reconsider their warm feelings for that animal.

One wonders just how tolerant Vermonters would be of a healthy population of mountain lions after one attacked a child waiting for the school bus.

Threat of Being Attacked
Until 2011, that question rested upon a hypothetical. People in Colorado communities might need to warn their children and to look over their own shoulders when they were out jogging, but not here.

Then, a mountain lion was run over by an SUV on the outskirts of New Haven, Connecticut. There was no denying that the carcass, which was examined by experts, was that of a mountain lion. So the initial assumption was that the animal was one of those “captives” that had either escaped or been released by its owner. This was, after all, a long, long way from the nearest known population of mountain lions and virtually the heart of the suburban East. A far less likely environment for finding a mountain lion than just about anywhere in Vermont. The “captive” narrative also helped explain why there had been so many sightings reported, including some in Greenwich, among the richest and most domesticated suburbs in America.

Vermont offers plenty of habitat in which mountain lions could thrive.
Vermont offers plenty of habitat in which mountain lions could thrive.

A 2,000 Mile Journey
But examination of the carcass raised suspicions. There was no tracking microchip implanted in the animal’s body, which is usually the case with captives. And, furthermore, the animal still had its claws, though those have usually been removed from captive animals. Then, follow-up DNA research—matching samples from the carcass with those from scat and hair collected in other locations—established that the animal had come to Connecticut from the Black Hills of North Dakota. A journey of nearly 2,000 miles. It had traveled, certainly, though Minnesota and Wisconsin and, who knows, perhaps even Vermont and might, then, have accounted for some of those sightings. No way to prove—or disprove—it.

This much was certain: it was a wild mountain lion and it was in an area where one had not been seen for more than 100 years.

But it was also a male. Typical species behavior is for males to “disperse” from an area when the population reaches the carrying capacity of the habitat. The solitary animal seeks out new territory and eventually a new population will be established. But this requires a “breeding pair.” Ordinary, the lone males do not range much more than 100 miles. The one killed on the Connecticut highway was on a journey worthy of Odysseus so it isn’t likely that there will be a thriving population of mountain lions in Fairfield County, raiding backyard cocktail parties, anytime soon.

But in Vermont?

The habitat is certainly right, with so many farms having gone by and so much formerly cleared land returning to second growth forest and with the populations of prey species such as deer and porcupines having reached abundant proportions. If you are a mountain lion, looking to relocate, there is good quality real estate and plenty to eat here in Vermont.

“They may get here,” Doug Blodgett said to me one afternoon. “The animal that was killed in Connecticut proved that. But I don’t think it will happen any time soon.”

Blodgett and I were returning from a day spent looking for—and finding— timber rattlesnakes, a species that is endangered in Vermont. We were talking about those animals, like coyotes and turkeys, that have re-established themselves in Vermont and, unlike the rattlers, are thriving. Blodgett liked talking about this subject. Success stories being more fun to talk about than the other kind.

So I asked him about the catamount and if the animal in Connecticut was some sort of advance scout for a coming wave of resident lions.

“There is a lot of good habitat between here and the places where there are established populations of mountain lions,” he said. “That animal in Connecticut makes for a pretty fantastic story but it takes more than one dispersing male. You need breeding pairs and they’d probably settle down long before they got here.”

Still, there is no saying that it will not happen. Or, if it does, when that will be. But it seems virtually inevitable that a time is coming when that thing you see on the trail up ahead of you might be something to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

I can’t wait. ◊

Geoffrey Norman is a Dorset author and a frequent contributor to Stratton Magazine.