About two weeks ago, a Connecticut woman called game warden Richard Watkin and asked if there were any Canadian lynx in the area. She explained that she had seen a large cat while she was out walking near the Nordic Hills Lodge. “Canadian lynx are only starting to make a comeback in the Northeast Kingdom,” Watkins notes. “There aren’t any around here.”
But what the woman described wasn’t lynx-like – she said the cat was tan or beige, about five feet in length, with a long tail. She said she saw it walk out of the tree line near Look Road, and watched it walk up the road before it turned back into the woods. “It was a unique sighting,” Watkin says. “I took the information and archived it.”
Then, a week later, Watkin received a similar call, this time from a second-home owner on Old Ark Road – not far, as the crow flies, from the earlier sighting. She described a similar animal – a large, tan cat with a long tail, and rounded ears. Mountain lions have rounded ears, while many other wild cats in North America, such as bobcat and lynx, have pointed ears. She had seen the cat when she was out walking her dog at about 6 am. “She saw the cat from about 100 feet away,” Watkin says. “It came out of the tree line, looked at her, turned, and went back the way it came. She had a really good view.”
The woman returned to her house, thinking she may have seen a bobcat. But when she thumbed through a wildlife identification book at the house, she realized she had seen a mountain lion. She reported the sighting to the game warden and called her neighbor, Paul Kasanoff, to tell him about the cat.
“Later she called me back, and asked me if I wanted to see some cat poop,” Kasanoff says. “When she returned to the spot later, she found scat in the road where the cat had been.”
Kasanoff is an avid hunter and outdoorsman, familiar with the evidence Vermont’s woodland animals typically leave behind. “When I saw it I knew it wasn’t bear, it wasn’t moose, it wasn’t dog.”
Thinking quickly, Kasanoff snapped a photo before he sealed what could be the only existing physical evidence of a mountain lion in Vermont in a plastic baggie, and popped it in his freezer until it could be turned over to wildlife authorities.
The sample made its way to state wildlife biologist Doug Blodgett at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department office in Rutland. Blodget says the sample has already been sent off to the lab for DNA testing, but not before he took a peek. “It looked a little small to me,” Blodgett says. “But the animal was described as about the size of a shepherd.”
Blodgett says the collection of suspected catamount scat is a rare occurrence, but this isn’t the first time. In most other cases, the scat has turned out to have been left by coyotes or other large, and common, woodland wildlife. But in 1993, three hunters collected a scat sample in Craftsbury, after a reported sighting of a mountain lion and two cubs. DNA testing hadn’t been perfected at the time, and the sample was tested using other laboratory analysis. The lab in Ashland, OR, said they found a single mountain lion hair. “It made a big splash,” Blodgett says. “It created quite a buzz.”
But just four years later, in 1997, DNA testing was available, and the state sent a sample to a lab in California. The result this time said the sample was from a canine, not a feline. “That left everyone scratching their heads,” Blodgett says. “One lab says cat, the other says dog, and each lab stood by the results of their work.”
When the state called the DNA lab to get their scat back for a second opinion, they were told that the sample had been destroyed during testing. “That really took the wind out of everyone’s sails.”
Rather than resolving the issue of the existence of catamounts in Vermont, the opposing test results may have added to a conspiracy theory that the state of Vermont is suppressing evidence of an indigenous catamount population. But Blodgett says, as far as he’s concerned, he’d love to find any physical evidence of mountain lions living in Vermont. “I think it would be very cool if we had evidence of a catamount in Vermont,” he says. “If (the test results) say it’s catamount, I’d be tickled.”
In fact, Blodgett is the chief catamount specialist for the state, following up on many of the 40 to 50 annual sightings. “In at least 95% of the sightings, other animals are mistaken for catamounts,” Blodgett says. “The most common are coyotes and domestic cats seen from a distance where there isn’t a dimension of scale. Bobcats are reported, and even fisher. Every great once in a while we get a sighting that sounds very credible. What we lack is tangible evidence. That’s what we need.”
And that’s what the state may have in the sample taken from Old Ark Road. But Blodgett says catamount enthusiasts shouldn’t start chilling their champagne yet. “Everybody expects it to be like CSI, that we’ll get the results immediately,” he says. “Don’t hold your breath, it’s going to take a while.”
And, given the hubbub over the last suspected catamount scat, if the result of DNA testing indicates that the sample did come from a mountain lion, they’ll have it tested again at a second lab before releasing any results to the public. If the second lab confirms the result, Blodgett says, biologists will still have a mystery to solve. “Even if it’s confirmed as mountain lion scat, we don’t know the origin of the cat. It could be from an illegally kept exotic pet.” DNA testing can determine if the cat is from North America, but it can’t narrow down any regional origin.
And Blodgett also cautions that evidence of one cat is not evidence of a “wild catamount population” in Vermont. In fact, he says it’s quite clear to him that there is no population of mountain lions in the state. “Even in Wyoming, which has about the same human population and about 10 times the area of Vermont, three to four mountain lions a year are killed on the road,” Blodgett says. “A skilled hunter can go out and, within a short period of time, find tangible evidence of mountain lions in the area. If there was a native population in Vermont, we’d see the signs.”
Kasanoff says this isn’t the first time there has been a sighting on Old Ark Road, but others have only caught glimpses – not enough to be sure, and not enough to report.
He’s planning to put some digital trail cameras in the area of the sighting to capture an image of the cat. “I hope this will add some credence to the sightings,” he says. “And if we can get some pictures, even better.”