Wildlife biologist breaks down mountain lion sightings in Connecticut
Jason Hawley says his office gets lots of calls about mountain lions each year.
“People often get very emotional about it,” Hawley says. “‘Hey, I know what I saw. I’ve seen bobcats before, this wasn’t a bobcat.’ And it’s a lose-lose situation, because there’s really not a whole lot you can tell them in most cases that’s going to change their mind.”
Hawley, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, says data don’t support a breeding population of mountain lions in Connecticut.
But a high-profile sighting in 2011 stirred up renewed interest in the animals here, when a mountain lion from South Dakota was hit and killed by a car on a Connecticut highway.
As a carnivore biologist, Hawley says he would love it if mountain lions were here.
“I couldn’t tell you how happy I would be if mountain lions were actually recolonizing the state of Connecticut,” Hawley says, “but it’s just not happening.”
Hawley spoke about bobcats, mountain lions and bears on The Colin McEnroe Show: “‘Megafauna mania:’ our obsession with mountain lions and other large predators.”
These highlights have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
For mountain lions in Connecticut, a ‘lack of evidence is very good evidence’
McEnroe: Scientifically, this is a case where absence of evidence is kind of evidence of absence, right? We’d be seeing more carcasses of prey – we would be seeing at least some carcasses of mountain lion prey.
Hawley: Yeah. As a scientist, lack of evidence is very good evidence. We’ve done a lot of work over the years investigating sightings.
We even had a sighting – someone here at DEEP, in my office, was convinced they saw a mountain lion. It had rained previously. He drove me out to the spot. It was a flooded area. So there’s fresh mud. And he said, “This is where the mountain lion crossed.” We walked in – and there were fresh bobcat tracks in there.
Anyone can get fooled. I’m not an expert on human psychology, but if you’re looking for something, you have a greater chance of actually “seeing” it.
On where mountain lions currently live
Hawley: Wildlife biologists across the United States know where the current mountain lion range is. It’s documented through track surveys, aerial surveys, trapping and collaring surveys. We know that the closest established breeding population is in either the Everglades of Florida – there’s a small population down there – and then out in South Dakota and Nebraska. Those are the two closest populations that we have here.
On a mountain lion that died on a Connecticut highway
In 2011, genetic testing confirmed that a mountain lion originated in South Dakota and traveled more than 1,500 miles before being struck by a car on the Merritt Parkway, according to Reuters.
Hawley: That animal was documented. Many, many times, in many different ways – along its travel up through Minnesota, Michigan and to Canada, down through New York, through hair samples, blood samples, trail camera photos.
It’s a cool story – with how far that animal walked. But it’s also a great story that lays out how an animal this large, at 150 pounds, traveling through even rural areas, leaves signs and is detected.
When you look at a state like Connecticut, with all the people we have here, all the trail cameras we have in the woods, all the cars we have driving – you can imagine if we had an established population here in Connecticut, we would know about it pretty quickly.
On another large animal that is most definitely here: bears
Hawley: We’re sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place right now. We’ve got a growing bear population. And we’re one of the most densely populated states as far as humans. So it’s this gathering storm.
We’re getting more and more home entries every year. You know, we’ve had so many home entries this year. And even the home entries are kind of changing. It used to be that a bear would go into a house when someone wasn’t home. Now the bears, they don’t even care if people are home, they’ll go right in the house. We have people eating dinner in their kitchen, they hear a noise, all of a sudden a bear walks in, so they run into their bedroom to get away from the bear, while the bear’s out ransacking their refrigerator.
It’s definitely a problem – that’s only going to get worse. It’s quite an uphill challenge for us to manage that situation right now.
On the idea of bear hunting in Connecticut
State lawmakers have entertained bills to establish a bear hunting season for years, but so far, none of those proposals has passed. Massachusetts and several other New England states have bear hunting, or “harvest,” seasons, which proponents say help control populations.
McEnroe: It is an uphill challenge. And I’m assuming whatever we’re doing right now, it’s not working. And there are different schools of thought about that. “Let’s learn to live alongside this very large animal” is one of the schools of thought. And there’s another school of thought, “Well, no, there just are too many of them – probably we have to reduce that population somehow.” Where do you fall in that whole continuum?
Hawley: I feel strongly that we need a harvest here in Connecticut. So all the other states in the Northeast that have bear populations have a harvest on their bears. They certainly have, you know, lower levels of conflicts and home entries than we do here in Connecticut.
A harvest is kind of twofold. It lowers the population in a way that’s not going to affect the long-term population. But it also sort of instills that fear, a healthy fear of humans and bears.
Hear the full interview: “‘Megafauna mania:’ our obsession with mountain lions and other large predators”