Spatz Responds On Cougars

The autumnal equinox is here, landscapes and backyard maples are sporting that familiar early-fall tinge and, yep, cougar feedback from high priests is alive and well.

It didn’t take long for Cougar Rewildling Foundation (CRF) President Chris Spatz to chime in on last week’s column titled “Cougar Rewildling Could Happen Here.” Actually, there is probably no one on earth more eager for  such a development. That’s his foundation’s mission: to bring cougars back east. But he knows the he and other cougar advocates are really up against it politically. It is thus not difficult to surmise that he’s pessimistic at best about cougars returning to the Northeast, based on what he knows about government policy where cougar populations are alive, well and itching to migrate out to new domains.

The major problem is that state and federal wildlife and law-enforcement officials, always swayed by public outcry, opinion and safety concerns, are pulling strenuously in the opposite direction. While some of these wildlife experts are indeed sympathetic to the noble beasts’ plight to repopulate places from which they were long ago extirpated, most public officials know that the return of any large carnivores capable of inflicting bodily harm or even death upon human beings are not generally welcome, even on the fringes of rural neighborhoods. Thus, in a place like South Dakota’s picturesque Black Hills, where some 30 years ago cougars returned after, give or take, a 100-year absence, state officials would rather be safe than sorry, so to speak. So, in recent years they have instituted what cougar defenders consider draconian harvest quotas aimed at keeping big cats buried deep in the wilderness and away from even rural folks, never mind suburbs and urban areas.

This dilemma is spelled out in minute detail by science and nature writer William Stolzenburg, whose intriguing new book “Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America” follows the media-darling cougar that traveled more than 2000 miles from his Black Hills birthplace to Milford, Conn, before meeting its maker on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in the wee hours of June 11, 2011. Although this juvenile male “disperser” may not have been the first cougar to make such a cross-country journey in search of a female and new territory of its own, it is the first and only documented case, one that may solve the mystery of at least some of the hundreds of sightings reported in the Northeast over the past 30 years. The fact is that there’s really no way of knowing for sure. On the other hand, there’s no way of saying it’s impossible, either. Now that South Dakota and other western cats are being tranquilized and collared for research studies, others may well show us the way to rewildling and hint at the possibility that such migrations have been randomly and rarely occurring for many years.

Spatz wouldn’t likely argue against that hypothesis, given what he now knows about male dispersers as a result of the western collaring and telemetry tracking initiative. Young males do indeed wander greater distances than initially believed to escape the ire of dominant males in established territory, and to find females. The problem is that the same type of research shows females reluctant to travel nearly as far.
“No wild female (with a fresh case in Tennessee still pending) or kittens have been documented east of the Missouri River,” wrote Spatz last week. “The closest breeding colony remains Nebraska. Young males can disperse thousands of miles ’til the cows come home. But if females don’t make into the Midwest, let alone farther east, there can be no rewildling.”

Fair enough. But having read, enjoyed and comprehended Stolzenburg’s book on a fascinating subject of longtime personal interest and study, the author seems to suggest that re-establishing cougars to their old eastern haunts would eventually happen by natural migration and range expansion with friendly wildlife-management objectives. Which is to say that if the wildlife-management goal was to allow western big cats to multiply at sufficient rates to expedite range expansion of males and females, sooner or later they’d repopulate available wilderness areas through the Ozark Mountains as well as Great Lakes country, not to mention farther east in the Adirondack, Green, White and Appalachians mountains all the way down the East Coast to the Blue Ridge and Great Smokies.

Although Spatz doesn’t expect such a liberal cougar-management policy to be enacted in the Black Hills anytime soon, he didn’t argue with the inevitable-rewildling hypothesis if such the goal was to push populations east.

“Yes, it would happen eventually,” he wrote, “but it’s 700 miles from the central Nebraska colony to the next best habitat identified by (CRF colleague) John Laundre as well as the Cougar Network in the Ozarks and northern Minnesota.
“Every male that’s made that trek for the last 25 years has either been killed or disappeared. Females tend to stay within 100 miles of their natal range. Prairie range expansion has crept only 150 miles in 25 years. That means it would take at least 50 years to get halfway to the Ozarks under good conditions. The question is: how will females raise kittens to dispersal age while stepping stone across this hostile landscape where no male has survived in 25 years?
“So much must change in puma management across 2,000 miles to get them back to New England.”

Agreed.

Then again, never underestimate the power of Mother Nature, and don’t just dismiss out of hand every local cougar sighting you hear of. Obviously, after that 2011 Connecticut road kill, it can happen, probably will again and has before.

 

Cougar Rewilding Could Happen Here

Like yesterday, I clearly remember the day it was brought to my attention: June 11, 2011. The breakfast alert came by email from old friend and valued source John McDonald, the former MassWildlife Deer Project Leader by then working as a wildlife biologist out of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFW) Hadley office.

Yes, it was true. Finally, after scores of reported New England sightings publicized right here over more than three decades, a real, big, live mountain lion had met its maker after midnight on a Milford, Conn., highway. And, oh yes, the question of its origin was a hot topic indeed. Call it bad timing. Just three months earlier, USFW had changed eastern cougar status from endangered to extinct. In other words, the king of North American wildcats, once native to the East, was no longer considered rare. According to the USFW, this cat no longer existed. The announcement was celebrated by many who said, “Told you so,” and, well, then again, criticized by those who  totally disagreed. So, go figure: three months later, a 140-pound male that measured nearly eight feet from nose to tip of tail, with no visible signs that it had ever been held in captivity, turned up dead on Connecticut’s Gold Coast, in a Long Island Sound town in the evening shadow of New York City.

What was interesting about my informant for this news flash within hours of the road-kill was that McDonald had warned me as a friend and longtime source to stop publicizing cougar sightings, which are not accepted as evidence by authorities but rather as misidentified house cats, golden retrievers, bobcats, deer, chipmunks and you name it. Well, honestly, chipmunks should be stricken from that list. But you get he point.

Although I can’t remember the exact wording of his morning email, I can paraphrase it as a cautious compliment somewhere along the lines of: Congratulations on your perseverance regarding this subject. A dead adult cougar showed up last night on a Milford, Conn., highway. We’re not sure where it came from but are investigating escaped-pet or animal-farm escapee as possibilities.

Hmmmmm? Anything but a real, live, wild cougar somehow finding its way to New England, where it once roamed freely as a valuable carnivore in the Northeastern ecosystem. Well, no such luck, fellas. By simply eyeballing the dead creature, it was clear from the start that it was a wild beast that had all of its claws and wore not a sign of tattoos, ear clips, computer chips or other identification markers placed on it by humans for identification. No, this young male was no pet.

Later, after gathering DNA samples and cross referencing them with the ever-growing federal database, it was discovered to be the same cat that had earlier shown up and left collectible DNA evidence through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario and Lake George, N.Y., before arriving in posh Greewich, Conn., and dying as road kill on the Wilbur Cross Parkway at 12:30 a.m. The DNA samples taken from the carcass, likely in the presence of U.S. Special Agent Thomas Ricardi, namesake son of former the state Environmental Police captain and current wildlife-rehabilitation expert who lives in Conway, matched the cat to five other samples along its 15-point, 19-month, 2,000-plus-mile trek through hostile territory all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Now, thanks to William Stolzenburg’s new book, “Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America,” most of this cat’s so-called record journey is blended into a documented tale of cougar rewilding in the Black Hills based on scientific analysis of  radio-collared cougars tracked wandering to find new territories after expulsion from dominant cats’ domains where they’re born. If no one interferes with this natural migration, one would expect juvenile males in the 2-year-old class to be on the move out of dominant males’ territory looking for female mates and into new territory to establish as their own. Thus, over time, one would expect their range to eventually expand eastward all the way to the coast.

Called “dipersers,” no one was sure how far these wayward cats would travel seeking a female, but it was clear early on that 200- and 300-mile treks were common. That radius was later increased to 700 miles when a young Black Hills male found its way to Oklahoma, where it was killed by a speeding sagebrush freight train. Then these dispersers started showing up in Iowa and Nebraska and Arkansas and Kansas and Michigan and Illinois and Wisconsin and Kentucky, where sooner or later they would either be killed accidentally on a road or rail or die at the hands of law enforcement officials wired for public safety. More than one pathetic disperser met its end cowering under a porch, backyard trailer or you name it. Defenders say such a response is unwarranted, that these cats should be tranquilized, moved and saved. Law enforcement would rather dispatch these potentially problematic cats to eliminate any possibility of human fatality or injury resulting from attack.

Given what they now know after years of radio-collar tracking, in a perfect world the juvenile males would break new trails in all directions and, sooner or later, females living in saturated western territory would follow, eventually building new reproductive cougar populations nationwide and into Canada and Mexico and perhaps beyond. Although it appeared that this process was well underway five and more years ago because of an ever-increasing Black Hills gene pool, that migration process has been derailed by aggressive recent overhunting in South Dakota, where, over the objections of cougar-rewildling advocates and progressive, deep-ecology state and local wildlife and conservation advocates, the state has set generous bag limits leaning in he direction of keeping numbers down in the name of public safety, not to mention vociferous complaints and hysteria from ranchers, sheep herders and residential cougar-phobes.

What this big cat that died in Connecticut proves is that there are no geographical or manmade obstacles capable of keeping similar dispersers from repopulating the East over the long haul. And who’s to say his was the first, that others before him were real and not hallucinations or misidentification? These cats are good swimmers and can learn to negotiate superhighways and  secondary back roads alike. Fact is, there is no such thing as an insurmountable mountain range capable of barring their door in any direction.

The list of sources relied upon by the author Stolzenburg — a prolific Reno, Nev., science and nature writer — is chock full of experts used by this space over the years. We’re talking about scholarly Chris Spatz and Helen McGinnis of the Easten Cougar Foundation that morphed into today’s Cougar Rewildling Foundation, and rabble-rousers like Bill Betty and John Lutz, with both of whom I still maintain an open line of communication despite my reluctance to jump full bore into their government-conspiracy camp. I listen with interest to all of them and others as well and form my own opinions about the credibility of their tales and the potential cougar comeback in the Northeast, which I do not consider impossible.

I was surprised, given who he did talk to, that Stolzenburg didn’t discover USFW researcher Virginia Fifield, who was sent to the Pioneer Valley to investigate cougar sightings and reports from 1981 through 1985. Headquartered in Hadley before the new, state-of-the-art USFW office was built, she investigated hundreds of reports and recorded one solitary “confirmed” track found in the mud left behind by a Goshen puddle. Similar studies by other folks of Fifield’s ilk are cited in Stolzenburg’s fine book, and Fifield’s finding would have only enhanced his argument.

As for me, well, Stolzenburg’s book provided one more voice on a fascinating subject that has captured my curiosity ever since several workers taking a break in the mid-1970s during construction of the new Whately Glen Reservoir reported a sighting in broad daylight. It was not a phantom sighting by a single man but rather several witnesses reporting the same mountain lion sighting, and word spread like wildfire through South Deerfield. Since then, there have been many more credible Pioneer Valley sightings reported here and elsewhere, and there will likely be many more. Stolzenburg adds to the discussion and makes it blatantly clear that cougar rewildling in the east is far from impossible if allowed to happen. Then again, who’s to say it won’t happen despite overzealous wildlife management policy in cougar niches like the Black Hills? If so, it’ll take more time than if their goal was to increase the population and expand the range back to its colonial borders.

A Good Read About Coyotes

With an active, dynamic and ever-changing reading list usually piled atop the square, snake-legged candlestand next to my La-Z-Boy reading chair, it’s unlikely I’ll jump right on a book recommended by friends or readers, no matter how much I respect their opinion. Not impossible, but definitely a long shot given the big picture.

Well, it just so happens that this recommendation was an exception — one that caught me with an opening as I neared the end of Barbara Olins Alpert’s “The Creative Ice Age Brain: Cave Art in the Light of Neuroscience,” which triggers so many intriguing, local, deep-history questions. So I went on a cyber search, found the book at a reasonable  price, ordered it and jumped right in when finished with Alpert’s fascinating study of cave art dating nearly 40,000 years back. Hard to imagine, huh?

Nonetheless, the new read immediately grabbed me and quickly bore succulent fruit dealing with  a subject of old personal fascination: that is, coyotes. Not only that, but it even helped me through the first Labor Day Weekend in memory without local peaches to sweeten my morning cereal. Oh, how I eagerly await the ripening of our annual salubrious peaches, which never arrived this year due to Mother Nature’s February/March sleight of hand, the old witch.

The reading recommendation came from Deerfield Academy English teacher Joel Thomas-Adams, and it couldn’t have come at a better, more appropriate time. I had for weeks been listening to a good old friend devastated by the loss of a dear cat and, though not certain exactly what happened to it, he named coyotes as his No. 1 suspect, vowing to shoot any with nerve enough to show themselves along the lawn’s edge of his wooded estate.

“Can you tell me what good they do?” he’s asked rhetorically and angrily many times in grief over the loss of his beloved pet, a male cat who liked the freedom to roam and hunt, then one day didn’t return. By now it’s a foregone conclusion that Brady will not return, a sad reality that repeats itself every other second in the harsh world of nature.

When I try to defend coyotes as predators playing a distinct role in the ecosystem by thinning out mice and moles and squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits and woodchucks and other small animals that can wreak havoc when unchecked, he ain’t buying it for one second. No sir. Not a chance. He’s furious at coyotes. Well, coyotes and suspect No. 2: fisher cats, like coyotes, known hunters of domestic cats.

“We did just fine without coyotes when I was a kid,” he snaps, “and in my opinion we don’t need them now.”

It’s not a novel sentiment among hunters, farmers and hilltown residents who own pets, hen houses and maybe lambs or calves. When you think of it, there may not be a more misunderstood animal in North America than coyotes. It may not be deserved. Evolving from the western prairies, these wild canids have in the past 50 years become an eastern phenomenon as well. Perhaps people who have learned to hate these highly intelligent, adaptable wild canids ought to read Dan Flores’ book “Coyote America,” which takes coyotes from their honored past in ancient Native American creation and trickster lore, to their villainous status during the American taming of the Wild West well into the 20th century, to continued persecution as a new “coywolf” hybrid that’s moved into urban and suburban settings all the way to the Atlantic coast with mischievous, opportunistic, grinning Wile E. Coyote aplomb.

The story Flores spins is sad indeed, some of it grotesquely inhumane — a story of horrifying, heartless cruelty by federal and state poisoning initiatives, not to mention trapping, snaring and destruction of litters in their secure dens. It was a no-holds-barred attempt to extirpate a North American animal that was here on this continent long before the people charged to remove it, ancestors of European colonists who came here beginning in the 16th century.

But guess what? The more these institutional murderers intensified their concerted efforts to wipe out these wily little critters, the faster the population grew and moved and interbred with red wolves and expanded their homeland coast to coast. And the populations continue to grow nationwide today, with resident metropolitan populations in our biggest cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, not to mention border-to-border small-town America, plus Central America and Canada. So, take it to the bank: folks from Central America to Canada must be prepared to learn to coexist with coyotes, because they have evolved into an animal that’s here to stay. They were here first, have learned to live on the fringes for millennia and will continue to do so forevermore.

As a Franklin County resident for most of my 63 years on earth, I have witnessed the evolution of what we now call eastern coyotes, first called wild dogs, then coydogs, then brush wolves, and now coywolves. Call them what you may, but they are here for the long haul carrying varying degrees of western coyote, red wolf and domestic dog DNA. Some are more wolf than coyote, others more coyote than wolf, but they’ve all learned to survive quite well, thank you, in the Northeastern mountains, forests and wetlands. The good news is that they’ll keep the varmint populations down. The bad news? Well, you may lose a pet if not careful. Furthermore, these sneaky canids may become a nuisance if you’re careless and inadvertently feed them by leaving trash exposed.

I was probably in the third grade the first time I heard of local coyotes, although I had no idea at the time that that’s what they were. The tale of a February or March brush-pile den of “wild dogs that looked like small German shepherds” came from Bill Van Petersilge, a woodsman, hunter and surveyor who worked with my dad. Van Petersilge and wife Marge (Settright) owned Indian Acres, a expansive Mill River dairy farm in Deerfield, with a woodlot extending west to a back property line along Whately Glen Road. Van Petersilge was a World War II marine combat veteran and the survivor of many bullet-riddled seashore landings on the Pacific Theatre. My dad affectionately called him “Old Fred” for some reason, and they traveled New England and beyond in the same crew for decades as close friends and fellow pranksters. Anyway, Van Petersilge was out cutting cordwood that winter when the cutting’s best, and with his superior eyesight caught peripheral motion that turned out to be an aggressive bitch showing her teeth. She was protecting a den of pups hidden in the brush pile and meant business. There’s more to the story than I’m going to tell but it was the first mention I ever heard of local coyotes, and obviously it left an impression.

By the time I was an adult in the 1980s, these coydogs had proliferated to ubiquity and were familiar to anyone who spent a lot of time outdoors or traveling rural roads. Today this eastern coyote is a well-established component of our ecosystem and that of the entire Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, high and low, in neighborhoods, dense swamp and remote forest. No matter where you travel these days, be it Conway or Quincy, Bolton or Boston, Springfield or Sandwich, the sighting of an eastern coyote is not uncommon.

So, if you want to learn more and understand the North American evolution of this highly efficient predator, read Flores’ “Coyote America.” You won’t be disappointed. Who knows? It may even change your unfavorable opinion of this wild, misunderstood, ubiquitous New England creature.

Next up on the reading list? Oh, that’s easy: “Heart of a Lion” by William Stolzenburg. I stumbled across it as recommended reading on an Amazon site where I found Flores’ book, investigated further and — lo — discovered it’s about the wayward Black Hillls, S.D., cougar that wound up dead on a Connecticut highway after leaving a well documented trail through Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Ontario and who knows where else to the evening shadow of New York City. Should be a good read on a subject I, at the time of the road kill, felt smack-dab in the middle of.

Bears, Coyotes And A Little Tease

The Beldingville bears just keep on giving in this, a week that has thus far offered ideal morning weather for bottomland rambles. So, of course I took robust, refreshing walks through familiar riverside habitat each day, doubling the normal distance to extend the splendor of a cool north breeze, bright blue sky, and sparse, white, wispy clouds silently drifting south like dreamy, distant cotton swabs.

Had I time and willing companions other than the dogs, I would have headed for an upland hardwood wonderland to investigate ridge-top forest that looks quite inviting and lush from afar despite the dry spring and summer some call a drought. And you must understand that time is running out for woodland treks, with bear season looming the day after Labor Day. After that, explorative woodland romps could be hazardous to one’s health, not to mention potentially dangerous to a pair of rambunctious springer spaniels, one 12 but still plenty frisky when everything lines up.

Walking the wilds can stir the most pleasant, probing and profound pondering. It was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote: “Only thoughts reached by walking have value.” And one of our own, Henry David Thoreau, believed that a lifetime of walking within a 10-mile radius of home could produce infinite new discoveries. Both men have stood the test of time. What they said in their day is still true and pure. That’s what gives them merit. Their words of wisdom have stood the test of time and will continue to do so for the ages. Walt Whitman, an American literary giant who overlapped Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century, was once asked whose words would be followed longer, Thoreau’s or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s. Without hesitation, Whitman correctly named Thoreau, considered a lesser literary figure and scholar than Emerson in his day.

But enough of that temporary digression spurred by invigorating morning walks in perfect weather, and back to our Beldingville bear discussion, because another articulate voice entered the fray last week. Which reminds me. I’d be a liar to deny that more than a few times it has crossed my meandering thoughts while hiking that it may have been unwise of me so close to hunting season to publicize recent interesting bear encounters in that rural Ashfield neighborhood. “What if,” my inner sanctum has queried, “hunters populate the woods up there and take out that sow which appeared to be with four cubs in a friend’s garage?” Well, let’s just say that was not my desired outcome when identifying the bears’ whereabouts. In fact, truthfully, I’d hate to learn I played any role in leaving four orphaned cubs to fend for themselves in our idyllic western uplands.

To briefly summarize the bear tales I am speaking of and have written about the past two weeks, first Jack Shea and dog Nye had a scary encounter, then neighbors Lester and Nancy Garvin had an unrelated sighting worth sharing in their nearby garage and yard. And now, after reading the two previous narratives, another sophisticated wildlife observer chimed in by Friday email, wishing to share his perspective on the mini-attack and potential bluff charge endured by Nye and Shea, plus the unusual configuration of a sow and four cubs that showed up at the Garvin homestead. What was unusual about the Garvins’ sighting was that the different sizes of the four cubs appeared to indicate two pairs of offspring born in successive years — rare for bears, which typically mate every other year, raising cubs into their second spring before rejecting them to produce another litter.

Our most recent correspondent is Deerfield Academy English teacher Joel Thomas-Adams, who has previously responded to other columns. A little online poking around will tell you that the man is much more than a teacher at one of the world’s most respected prep schools. With a concentration in English and environmental studies, he’s an Oxford Rhodes Scholar who’s studied bears of all types during stops in the Northern Rockies, the Bitterroots, the Great Smokies and the Nantahalas. These days, he doesn’t have to travel far from his Old Deerfield home, with bears inhabiting the Pocumtuck Ridge to the east and, to the west, t’other side the Deerfield River, in the Old World. And that doesn’t even include his own backyard the foraging black beasts occasionally visit. In Thomas-Adams’ opinion, the scenarios described in my last two columns were not “mysterious.” To the contrary, he says that what he’s read is to be expected under the right circumstances.

“In the case of Mr. Shea, what clearly happened had less to do with (foraging of) blackberries (in dense, shielding cover) and more to do with the presence of a cub,” wrote Thomas-Adams. “Whether he saw it or not, (Shea) and/or his dog must have crossed the line between a mother and her  cub, probably treed. Just about any black bear, otherwise, would just move on to avoid conflict. The incident you reported is classic cub-defense behavior.”

Ok, understood and accepted. But in defense of Shea — who spent three hours in my company the day after his harrowing incident and actually accompanied me on my daily walk while waiting for the veterinarian to stitch-up his pet’s chest — he too suspected a cub or cubs were nearby, even though he never saw one like he had 30-some years ago when bluff-charged by a bear in the same area with infant daughter Emily in tow.

“Regarding the four cubs of various sizes,” Thomas-Adams continued, “it’s relatively predictable after such a mild winter. ‘Induced ovulation’ for bears is considerably more amazing than mere opportunism. Sows can carry fertilized eggs from several potential fathers and decide which to implant and which to jettison, usually depending on how much fat they’ve stored when it comes time to den. All fattened up with a good den and a clement winter coming on, she might well have implanted four eggs last fall.”

Thomas-Adams says he’s twice witnessed sows with four cubs, “and a sow with three cubs used to visit our backyard (and feeders) predictably each June. In turn, one of her cubs had three offspring and kept up the practice, returning (last June) with three tiny cubs that she treed in our backyard when I interrupted her destroying my feeder.”

Again, I must defend Dr. John McDonald, the expert I reached out to for analysis of the Garvin sighting. Reviewing the available information, McDonald laid out three potential scenarios that could explain four cubs, two larger than the other two, which would lead one to believe they were from different litters over two years. McDonald — currently a Westfield Sate University wildlife biologist with previous stops at MassWildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — first speculated that all four cubs could have been from the same litter and two were noticeably larger (possibly males). So he did have that option covered before launching into two more possibilities.

Thomas-Adams didn’t limit his insightful musings to the black-bear discussion. No, he went on to a describe a diminishing family of orphaned coyote pups he’s been observing for some time in Deerfield’s South Meadows, along wetlands that I myself know very well from pheasant hunting. Better still, he closed with an enticing little tease about a subject dear to me. In mention of the intriguing standing stones of ancient lore and local mystery on high, lonesome Burnt Hill in Heath, he implored: “I’d love to hear more (based on something besides woo-woo mysticism, of which there is plenty around here) about indigenous stone formations. I was checking out the ones on a high ridge in Heath recently, and there is an as-yet untraced network that may well have much to tell us.”

Oh my! He’s preaching to the choir there. I have been immersed in deep history and deep ecology of the Pioneer Valley for three or four years now, and Mr. Thomas-Adams’ little nudge toward that high Heath mystery among low-bush upland blueberries is right square in my wheelhouse.

Let’s save it for another day.

COUGARS TALES: First, a Hog Hollow Road/Buckland sighting by Sandy Cardinal, who wished she could furnish more information but, “was too surprised to even fumble for my phone/camera.” However, she could say that her driveway is about 800 feet long and, driving out, about halfway down “we saw the cougar, about 25 or 30 feet in front of us. It was turning from the driveway to return to the woods on the right, where there is a patch of lawn about 12 feet wide, then another 20 feet under tall trees, slightly shaded, before the woods close in. At first I thought bobcat until it finished its turn and we saw its full length and tail. I’m estimating its back was about 3 feet long with tail to match. Color was a deep tawny, darker at the tip of its tail, which had a slight, not quite upturn at the end. It was in no hurry but moved with strength and purpose. It never looked back at us.”

Ms. Cardinal says she’s been enjoying playful back and forth with neighbors ever since her sighting, teasing them that she’ll add a rope with feathers to make her walking stick a large cat toy and calling “here kitty, kitty’ as she wanders. Her neighbors are “teasing back that they’ll bring along some Meow Mix.”

Meanwhile, for the second time in a month or so, longtime Heath correspondent Rol Hesselbart forwarded a New York Times article about reintroducing mountain lions to the Northeast (if they are not already here in limited numbers). First, the reintroduction was proposed as a way to reduce a burgeoning whitetail deer population, which has become hazardous to the health of highway travelers, not to mention expensive for insurance companies, who, of course, defer the cost to policy holders. The thinking was that reintroducing an efficient deer predator like cougars would act as a natural check and balance. But can you imagine the public outcry? It would be immense … and, for some, hysterical.

Now, this week, another NYT article proposes a similar Northeastern program to reduce the incidence of Lyme disease, which is rampant in the New York City suburbs, coastal Connecticut, New Jersey and beyond. The latest proposal is to bring back cougars and timber wolves to keep in check the most prevalent carriers of the tick-borne disease: deer, mice and chipmunks. Also, the article suggests that reintroduction of the two efficient predators would also cut down the ever-expanding “coywolf” population expanding into out urban and suburban neighborhoods. Sometimes called a hybrid coyote, this canine we’re by now all familiar with is, according to the NYT article, one-quarter wolf, two-thirds Western coyote and part domestic dog.

Hmmmmm?

We’ll see how much traction these proposals get.

CATFISH DERBY RESULTS: Brothers Gary and Rick Hallowell’s seventh-annual Last Cast Catfish Derby held “anywhere on the Connecticut River and its tributaries for 36 hours last weekend (Friday night through Sunday) drew 48 competitors and raised $330 for Franklin County Big Brother/Big Sister. Old pro and previous two-time winner Bob “Catfish” Bedaw of South Deerfield looked like he would again walk away with top prize by catching an 11-pound, 5-ounce channel cat. But then the wily team comprised of James Lund of Montague, and father/son Mike and A.J. Sackett of Gardner put their heads together and pushed Bedaw aside. When it was all said and done, Mike Sackett won the $150 top prize with his 12-pound, 11-ounce cat. Second place ($100) went to Lund for his 12-pound, 1-ouncer, followed by Bedaw ($50) in third and Dave Chmura of Hadley ($25) in fourth at 11 pounds 2 ounces. Ken Magdycz of Plainfield won the $25 Sam’s gift-card door prize. The tourney was hosted by the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Club, with its clubhouse quietly nestled on the southern shore of Barton Cove. Pipione’s Sport Shop generously donated $100 and served a ticket headquarters.

An Unusual, Extended Bear Family?

How about that? A new twist to Beldingville bears, featured here last week after a harrowing incident that came this way from a local woodsman who, descending Ashfield’s distinctive, gumdrop-shaped Mt. Owen, ran into trouble.

For anyone who missed it, that tale involved Jack Shea, a retied 68-year-old Eaglebrook School teacher and Shelburne Falls native who lives off Beldingville Road in Ashfield. There, quite by chance, Shea became the unintended target of what unfolded like a “bluff charge.” Then, a few minutes later, he was indeed the intended target of aggressive body language from the same large, nervous black bear that had previously aimed its black fury at Shea’s 2-year-old black Lab bitch, Nye, rambling carefree in her neighboring forest.

Shea survived unscathed the first charge that came within spitting distance, then was able to short-circuit the second challenge by shouting at the bear walking downhill toward him. His pet wasn’t  so fortunate. No, frisky, young Nye absorbed a swat from the indignant, perturbed, feeding bear that was likely surprised while devouring sweet, salubrious wild blackberries on the edge of thick, thorny logging slash. The bear’s quick, powerful swipe resulted in several abrasions across Nye’s upper chest, two of which were deep enough to require eight stitches at the Greenfield veterinary hospital Shea visited for repair the next morning, after discovering his pet aggressively licking at the scabs.

But, enough of that story, told in detail last week. On to a new tale emanating from the same Ashfield neighborhood. From there,  a reader chimed in by email to share  another fresh bear story that immediately attracted my interest, not to mention that of Westfield State University wildlife biologist John McDonald, a bear expert to whom I forwarded Nancy Garvin’s thorough, well-written  narrative along with  my response. The blow-by-blow narrative told of a situation I immediately suspected to be unusual. But, being no expert, I reached out to credentialed McDonald, who confirmed the rarity of what Garvin had witnessed.

Garvin lives a mile and a half away on the same Beldingville Road section of Ashfield where Shea’s incident occurred. She and husband Lester Garvin, of Lake Hitchcock mapping fame these days, are beekeeping hobbyists and thus must be alert for bears, which can be a nuisance around honey hives. Plus, husband Les has a deep interest in wildlife, having devoted undergraduate and graduate studies to wildlife biology at the University of New Hampshire and UMass-Amherst. So, let’s just say the Garvins are not strangers to bears.

On July 21, Nancy walked out on her back porch looking for her husband and had the most peculiar sighting unfold before her disbelieving eyes. First, there was a good-sized bear cub standing a short distance away at the garage door behind her husband’s truck,  parked inside. With sweet-smelling beekeeping equipment inside, she figured the bear was interested and about to investigate, so she yelled at the cute ball of black fur and was seemingly ignored.

When she started down the steps, two smaller cubs “came tumbling out of the garage on the other side of the truck.” Then, when she yelled again, another cub, the same size as the bigger one she first saw came out behind the smaller ones. It gets better. Soon, a fifth bear, much larger, assumed to be an adult sow, came out on the same side of the truck as the first cub, and there they stood, all five of them — a sow with what appeared to be two cubs from this year and two from last year. No, not a common sight.

“I yelled at the mother and she stood up and looked at me before turning and heading away from the garage,” wrote Nancy, who  started to follow and realized the cubs were scrambling up a nearby tree. “So I stayed where I was until the mother collected the young and headed off.”

Of course, husband Lester knew that this configuration  of sow and cubs from separate litters was unusual. He had studied bears and was quite sure females had cubs every other year, raising their young into their second spring before rejecting them and  finding a mate and start a new family in the winter den. Curious, the Garvins told experienced bear hunters in town what Nancy had seen and received unanimous confirmation that it was unusual for a sow to be with cubs of two different age classes.

When I myself read her tale, I immediately responded to tell her I concurred with the assessment but had forwarded my response to McDonald, who I was certain could add much insight, maybe even speculation as to why the five bears were together. The man did not disappoint. He confirmed the rarity, admitted he had heard a few similar tales, and offered a few hypotheses:

• 1.) Pehaps the cubs were the same age but different sizes. Litters of four are not uncommon and there can be some cubs that get bigger faster within the litter. “However, I’m betting that if you say two were a lot bigger than the other two, that they really were.”;
• 2) Maybe it was just a coincidence that the sow and her two cubs found the garage and beekeeping supplies at the same time the two yearlings happened to be there. Yearlings usually leave the mother in late May or early June, but often stay with each other for weeks or months before permanently separating. So, yes, it is possible that they just happened to be there together … and, if so, the yearlings would still act as subordinates to the adult female;
• And, finally the third and most interesting scenario, 3) Even though bears do have a breeding season, usually in late May through August or so, unlike deer, which ovulate on a regular basis and can only breed within a short time window (a day or two per month), there is evidence that black bears are induced ovulators and only shed eggs in the presence of a male. Females with new cubs usually won’t associate with males and drive them off. Males will sometimes try to kill new cubs, the thinking being that they don’t know who the father is, but if they kill the cubs, the female will be available to breed that year. … “What could have happened in this case is that the female could have been separated from her new cubs for some time during the breeding season last year (cubs can live on their own in June or so of the first year), and they were apart long enough for her to encounter a male and get bred before reuniting with her cubs. Once reunited, she would have kept those cubs with her (pregnant) and given birth to new cubs in this past winter’s den.”

Asked if a sow would possibly adopt orphaned cubs crying out for their lost mother, McDonald said he doubted it.

“Once sows are out of their dens and free-ranging,” he wrote, “they  likely would not respond to cubs not their own. I believe biologists have attempted to foster cubs with females with litters during the post-denning season and have always failed. Sows either kill or abandon them. On the other hand, it is pretty easy to do so while the sows are still in their dens.”

McDonald asked the Garvins to keep and eye out for future visits by the same extended bear family, and said he hopes that publicizing this unusual sighting might coax out additional reports from the people living in the same neighborhood who see or have seen this same unlikely grouping of bears.

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If you want to read a book with much expert insight about bears, bear behavior and bear interaction with human beings, pick up a copy of “Grizzly Years,” by Doug Peacock.

A Green Beret Vietnam vet who returned to the states in 1967 and needed time to regroup and process out his identity, Peacock lived for many years studying grizzly bears in Yellowstone and the Washington State. He named many of these massive beasts, could identify many from afar, learned their habits and the way they interacted socially with other bears, and survived more than one “bluff charge” while trying to get close-up photos.

I would recommend this book on many levels as one of my better reads over the last few years. Of course, I knew Vietnam vets who returned home and “drifted” for many years before re-entering society. They didn’t wander off to live in the wild around grizzlies, but they were dealing with many of the same issues that troubled Peacock.

Beldingville Bear Encounter

Who hasn’t experienced vivid, realistic, twilight dawn dreams that transport them back many years to an indelible, possibly terrifying memory in the company of dear friends or hated rivals, the whole thing presented in living color and dynamic Dolby sound that seems as real as the distant day on which it happened.

Then, of course, there are those sudden, spontaneous, real-life occurrences that drop unexpectedly into your lap and immediately flash back to some distant, haunting memory … not at all unlike the surreal scenario that unfolded before Jack Shea’s worried eyes Sunday morning off Beldingville Roas in Ashfield, a reoccurrence more realistic than any nightmare.

An avid bowhunter and outdoorsman, the recently-retired 68-year-old Shea taught for 44 years at Eaglebrook School, covering subjects including art and outdoor adventure. A Shelburne Falls native and member of old Arms Academy’s final graduating Class of 1967, he also happens to be the proud grandson of late former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Sharkey. These days Shea resides in the rural nirvana of a secluded Beldingville home he built of native timber 33 years ago. Looking south from this peaceful abode, Mount Owen dominates the landscape as a steep gumdrop mound of stone and mixed forest, mostly hardwoods, where deer and bear and — dare I? — big cats are known to lurk. Shea knows that mountain like the back of his hand.

Our story begins before 10 a.m. Sunday, when Shea was out on an early-season deer-scouting mission, walking up a familiar old logging trail along which he intended to install trail cameras to identify potential prey for the approaching fall whitetail-deer hunt. Accompanying him was his beloved 2-year-old black Labrador retriever bitch, Nye, named after Nye, Mont., one of Shea’s favorite elk-hunting haunts. The rambunctious pup was having a blast rollicking willy-nilly through the mixed hardwoods and hemlock, probing every new scent as all gundogs do, with head held high and alert.

Not far from a landmark site of daunting memories dating back some 31 years to a perilous black-bear encounter he had experienced with infant daughter Emily, now 33, in his arms, he recalled it as he usually does up there. Who wouldn’t? That day, taking a leisurely walk through the woods with his infant daughter, he had run into a large sow with cubs. The protective sow charged him, probably trying to buy enough time for her twin cubs to climb a tree to safety. The protective momma bear raced right up to a stunned Shea before turning and running back to where it had come from. By that time, one of the cubs had treed near the Shea’s. Jack pointed up and said, “See the bear?” to oblivious young Emily.

Well, this time around, on Sunday morning, preoccupied reading deer sign on an alternate, direct, pathless route back home, Shea had momentarily lost track of his rambling pet when his tranquil mood abruptly changed at the sound of an alarming yelp some 50 yards uphill. Shea immediately feared that the distressful sound had come from Nye, who may have either “wrenched her leg or run into a bear,” similar to he and daughter Emily that harrowing day many years ago.

Shea turned to scan the wooded uphill terrain and right away picked up the motion of a big black beast barreling full speed ahead down the hill on a direct collision course with him. Then, running ahead of the bear, also all out, he noticed dwarfed Nye, sprinting for her life and her master’s protection. The nervous dog, in full panic mode by the time she reached Shea, panting, circling her owner and trying to gain security by cowering between his feet when the bear raced right into their kitchen without a trace of palpable fear or any intention to stop. Unarmed and on full-alert, Shea knew he had a potential problem on his hands. Maybe even a crisis.

“I’ve been around grizzly bears in Alaska and was trained to stand tall, raise my arms over my head and make myself as large as possible when one charges,” said Shea, a big man in the 6-foot-3, 230-pound neighborhood. “As it got close, I uttered a load, throaty growl or scream, which stopped the bear on a dime less than 10 feet from me.”

He figured the bear estimated to weight in the 250- to 300-pound range was either a sow with unseen cubs in the area or maybe even a solo boar devouring blackberries on the other side of a dense thicket when the undetected pet got too close. Surprise is not a good thing in such confrontations, when a bear can feel threatened.

“It’s difficult to say what precipitated that charge,” reasoned MassWildlife Information and Education Chief Marion Larson, when told of it, “but bears will run toward humans in bluff charges responding to danger. They’re trying to scare the target and avoid conflict. Our bear biologists are quite familiar with bluff charges but I don’t know of anyone ever being attacked, even when cubs are nearby. The bear is just sending a message to leave the area.”

Well, whatever this bear’s intention was on this occasion, it got to within spitting distance of Shea before stopping, spinning around and sprinting back up the hill it had just descended. A relieved Shea watched the retreat until the bear got out of sight, let out a deep breath, conducted a cursory inspection of Nye for damage, found none, and turned to walk away toward home. Before long, still internally overwhelmed by what he had just witnessed, Shea spotted a stump and decided to sit down long enough to fire off a quick text spinning his neighborhood tale for wife Christie. In the process, he sensed something approaching, looked uphill and, yes indeed, that bear was ambling back down the hill toward him. The beast, perhaps unhappy that Shea hadn’t left the area, halted about 50 yards out at Shea’s yell and reversed course back uphill.

Feeling added urgency to immediately vacate the area and take his dog home with him, Shea realized that Nye was nowhere to be found and worried that maybe his dear pet was injured and lying down somewhere. Nonetheless, still spooked, he “beelined it home” only to discover that his traumatized dog had beaten him there. Still traumatized, Nye soon retired, tail between her legs, to her cushioned dog bed in Shea’s bedroom, where she remained for most of the night.

Next morning, before 8, Shea’s wife noticed their pet furiously licking at its chest and suggested to her husband that he inspect the area for injuries. A quick look revealed a deep, scabbed gouge across the upper chest near the jugular, necessitating a trip to Dr. Edward L. Funk’s Brookside Animal Hospital in Greenfield. The veterinarian shaved the dog’s chest, exposing the full extent of the bear’s scratches and closing the deepest two cuts with seven stitches above and one below.

“Nye is one lucky dog,” said a relieved Shea, snapping cell-phone photos in my driveway on his way home, “and I must say I’m one very happy dog owner,” … vet bill notwithstanding.

A few days later, with Nye still “lying low,” according to Shea, the man was still uncertain whether he’d ever again allow his pet to accompany him up Mount Owen. But somehow you get the idea that the animal learned a valuable lesson Sunday, and will likely forevermore be extremely cautious when bear scent enters her nostrils.

Chalk it up as experience.

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OK, so now what are we to make of this rare local encounter between man and dog and a random bear?

Should we be afraid to walk through the woods? Keep dogs leashed for all woodland rambles?

Hmmmm?

Well … it depends.

No doubt we should always be alert and wary when patrolling bear country. According to wildlife biologist John McDonald, the former MassWildlife Deer Project Leader who’s done a lot of bear research and been the target of more than one bluff charge, it’s always a good idea to make noise in the woods to telegraph your presence long before a bear sees you.

“From what I can gather, that Ashfield bear had no idea the man and dog were in the woods until the dog was right on top of it. That’s why it reacted as it did,” he said. “If the bear knew the man and his dog were there, he would have been long gone. They must have been quiet, the wind must have been wrong and the vegetation was probably thick, so the bear was caught by surprise.

“Had the man, not his dog, surprised the bear, most likely it would have run away. Bears don’t seek conflict with humans. Dogs are another story. Bear won’t hesitate to go after a dog.”

Like his former colleague, MassWildlife I&E guru Larson, McDonald said he knew of and has witnessed many bluff charges in Massachusetts and cannot recall any that resulted in physical attacks.

“They charge to send a message,” he said. “I’ve seen bears get to within six or eight feet and start opening and closing their mouth, clicking their teeth together to make a threatening sound, before running off. They want you scare you, convince you it’s time to leave their territory.”
Informed of that expert analysis, Shea didn’t challenge it but did have a little cautionary addendum.

“I may get bell for Nye to announce her presence up there,” he said. “Because in a situation like Sunday, my dog put me in potential danger, a problem dog owners should be aware of.”

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I have, myself, encountered many bears in my woodland travels and have never felt threatened or been the target of a bluff charge. Every bear I have personally encountered, with or without dogs, has fled.

Last year on a morning walk near home, I wrote in this space about jumping a bear from close quarters. Although I must have had made plenty of noise leading up to flushing that beast, the bear must have gambled that I would pass wide and it decided to lay low in the thicket to continue feeding on spring skunk cabbage. The beast guessed wrong and bailed out like a runaway locomotive when my dog got to within maybe 10 feet of it, both of us separated by a dense, impenetrable wild-rose-bush border. Still, even though we got close, that bear took off, making no attempt to challenge us. But it had to have been aware of my presence at least 100 or 200 yards before it fled.

Although I hate to leash my dogs and always allow them to run free on upland hardwood spines, that description is somewhat misleading because I can always have them under control with Tri-Tronics remote-controlled collars if they don’t respond to the shrill whistle dangling from a lanyard around my neck. If my dogs disappear out of sight for too long, I first try to whistle them back (which announces our presence to any animals within earshot), and if the dogs don’t promptly reappear, I can bring them back with the collars, which come equipped with audible and adjustable electric-shock enforcement. The collars are quarter-mile leashes, although I can’t say I ever allow them to get that far away before bringing them back into  sight. Plus, I often speak to my dogs during our walks, just silly talk that unintentionally marks my presence to wild beasts long before I get too close for comfort.

Among the golden rules of etiquette all woodsmen and women must be cognizant of when in the wild is the one that demands always to respect nature, be alert to potential danger, and try at all costs to avoid it.

Why invite trouble?

Chewier Than Saltwater Taffy

We’re standing inside a reconstructed 400-year-old trading post along the south shore of Cape Cod Canal — impressive, exposed, hand-hewn oak beams overhead — talking to a wise, trim, attractive, copper-toned Native American woman guide.

Grandsons Jordie and Arie, 10 and nearly 7, are fiddling around with soft beaver and otter pelts, wampum jewelry and a fragrant, foot-long sassafras stick strewn atop a primitive sawbuck Pilgrim table, firing off one appropriate question after another. When they run out of follow-ups, I jump in and quickly venture into a rambling and quite promising deep-history chat with our warm brown-eyed guide who, just like that, quite innocently pulls me home from this new, faraway place named Aptucxet.

I think wife Joanne could sense the grandkids getting justifiably restless with subjects growing more complex by the second. She inconspicuously wandered off with the boys toward a tiny old railroad station where we had parked, providing a chance for me to continue an enlightening conversation that was dropping many fertile seeds capable a producing future succulent research-and-discovery fruit.

Tastefully reconstructed in the second quarter of the 20th century, Aptucxet was Plymouth Colony’s first trading post, established in 1627 in a Cape Cod location then known by its Indian name Manamet, now part of the Town of Bourne, formerly Sandwich, by Gov. William Bradford and a committee of fellow upstanding Mayflower Pilgrims. Within five years, two satellite outposts had been established in an early attempt to monopolize the New England fur trade. The second post was situated at a site Indians called Cushenoc (now Augusta, Maine), established in 1628 at the mouth of the Kennebec River, and the third was right here in the Connecticut Valley at the Indian place named Matianuk (or Matteneug), today Windsor, Conn., where Plymouth Colony Pilgrims built our valley’s first English outpost in 1633.

That Pilgrim migration to a Connecticut Valley rich in fertile land and commodities like furs, timber, fish, and you name it, was soon commandeered by competing English countrymen from Massachusetts Bay Colony, effectively pushing the Dutch and Pilgrims out. The Plymouth Pilgrims had opened the valley to English settlement, which was soon expanded by Massachusetts Bay Puritans led by Rev. Thomas Hooker, who founded Hartford, Conn., in 1636, when Puritan entrepreneur William Pynnchon was contemporaneously scurrying to establish an upriver fur-trading monopoly at Agawam (today Springfield). The rest is history, with settlement quickly running straight upriver to Nothampton, Hadley, Hatfield, Deerfield and Northfield.

Suspecting that I may share DNA with the merchants appointed to that first Aptucxet Trading Post, I asked our guide who they were and she was able only to identify them as two men appointed by Gov. Bradford, whom I sheepishly identified as a grandfather. Why the hesitation? Well, you never know what a Wampanoag will think of a Mayflower descendant after being run off sacred homeland by Pilgrims.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’m on your side.” And the conversation continued in a congenial tone for several minutes before I went looking for my dear companions.

A few days later, I read the five-dollar, 30-page, 1934 monograph documenting what was known about the Aptucxet site following a couple of early archaeological excavations. Although the first clerks were not identified, I did discover that my gene pool plugged into not only Gov. Bradford but also into fellow Aptucxet committee members John Alden and William Howland, two more ancient grandfathers of mine. So, all tolled, as it turned out, my grandfathers comprised 3/8 of the original committee appointed to establish our Pilgrim fathers’ first trading post, the place where the value of wampum was discovered during interactions with Dutch traders.

It’s those kinds of discoveries that often make my world seem much smaller. But it doesn’t end there. No. While on the Cape, we stayed in a home on the Wing’s Neck section of Bourne, a long peninsula reaching deep into Buzzards Bay toward the western outflow of the Cape Cod Canal. On its tip, surrounded by water, is Wing Lighthouse. It just so happens that a branch of this same Cape Cod Wing family from the mid-Cape Town of Harwich moved to Conway in the third quarter of the 18th century, settling near the Cyrus Rice homestead, Conway’s first, which stood high atop the ridge behind Pekarski’s Sausage off Route 116 in Deerfield. That first Wing farm stood south of Rice on an old discontinued road that still winds through the forest, connecting Roaring Brook and Whately Glen roads. All that’s left at those historic sites are cellar holes, capped wells and stonewalls that help to mark the footprints of the different abandoned early old farms.

One of the Wing girls born on that upland terrace was Mehitable (1790-1879), who married (Dec. 16, 1816) Silas Sanderson (1790-1863), a Deacon Thomas Sanderson son who ran the 19th-century Sanderson mills at Whately Glen (then called Sanderson Glen) before turning it over the son Elon. Part of Mehitable’s wedding dowry was a pine, six-drawer, Queen Anne chest of drawers that likely came from her late mother’s estate and was handed down to family brides over many subsequent generations.

Today, we own that unique, handsome piece of Americana and local history. I call it the Sanderson wedding chest. The distinguishing feature is six prominent fishtail drops — a semi-rare maritime motif found on some formal, late 18th- and early 19th-century case furniture produced in New London County, Connecticut and Cape Cod. These large fishtails — two in front and two on each side — descend toward the floor from the tall chest’s straight bracket base. Someday, when the boys are ready, I’ll try to put it all into context for them, connecting that family chest with its distinctive fishtail embellishment to our Cape Cod trip and much, much more.

Although this future family-history narrative will probably not last as long as the old Indian tales that could go on for days around a warm winter fire, trust me, I won’t sell them short, either. Serious discussions like that can meander widely from one subject to the next, all related, and endure for many moons when the listeners are willing.

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Although not a record year, the 2016 spring turkey season was not bad a’tall. No, sir, it was right up there with the best of all time, breaking the 3,000 mark for only the second time in the hunt’s 36-year history, according to preliminary numbers released by MassWildlife.

This year’s preliminary figure of 3,054, which will likely only grow a tad by the time the final harvest summary is released later this year, was a mere 31 lower than the 2009 final record 3,085. A breakdown of the numbers shows 83 birds taken during the one-day youth hunt and 2,971 taken during the regular four-week season starting annually in the first week of May. This year’s season began on April 25 and ended on May 21. Adult males comprised two-thirds of the preliminary harvest.

State Turkey Project Leader Dave Scarpitti credited the big numbers to better than average 2015 brood production and consecutive moderate winters of 2014 and 2015, reducing winter mortality.
The 12-day fall season runs from Oct. 24 through Nov. 25.

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Early-antler feedback:  A few reader comments regarding my assertion two weeks ago in this space that deer-antler growth was about a month ahead of July’s Full Buck Moon, which got its name, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, because July is typically the month when buck’s antlers poke through their foreheads. This year, by the time that full summer moon lit the midnight sky, local deer antlers appeared to be fully formed, yet still in velvet.

My own casual assessment of this anomaly was that the premature antlers were the product of bountiful fall hard and soft mast crops, followed by an easy winter with little snow and plenty of available food in the woods to keep deer healthy, plus many, many, edible, spring-germinating red-oak acorns on the ground through May to supplement the spring diet of deer foraging along the edge of agricultural hayfields.

State Deer Project Leader David Stainbrook returned my telephone message with a message of his own indicating that he concurred deer antlers were early this year, likely due primarily to diet. He recommended reading through Mississippi State University’s  extensive online reports on deer-antler growth if looking for in-depth research and theory.

Meanwhile, a veteran local hunter and fisherman chimed in to say he had run across several bucks with antlers while fishing the lower Deerfield, the Connecticut and Sawmill rivers in June and early July.
“I have never seen so many deer in my spring travels,” he marveled, “and most of them are bucks. Must be they’re hanging around rivers because it’s so dry and they’re staying near water.”

A week later, the same source called to say he’d spoken to another devoted deer hunter who takes the pursuit serious, makes his daily rounds and has trail cameras liberally positioned throughout deer country in Greenfield, Shelburne and Colrain. The man told my buddy he had never seen so many bucks this time of year. Could it be because in other years he couldn’t differentiate between sexes because the bucks’ were not yet sporting antlers? Probably so. But that doesn’t diminish his observation.

Early Antlers?

Full moons, phone calls and velvet. Enticing indeed.

So let’s go back to Sunday morning, July’s Buck Moon  in the overnight sky waxing toward its full Tuesday splendor. And, oh, how beautiful that full moon was at 3 a.m. Wednesday, casting a surreal silver light across the front yard that even fooled the cat, which usually awaits  daybreak to climb the bedroom screen window to inform us that it’s time for an additional bedmate.

Back to Sunday morning, I had returned home from a robust walk with the dogs and the caller-ID indicated that old friend Rogie had called while I was away. I grabbed the phone, sat down, selected his name on the screen and returned the call. We’re old friends. Good friends.

He immediately picked up, knew who was calling and, not unexpectedly, opened with a customary smart-aleck remark. “Hey, why don’t you throw your dogs in the truck and drive down here to go looking for deer. Then, when we’re done, we can go down to the bottom of the hill and split some cordwood.”

“Yeah, right,” I responded. “Not today, Pal. I work Sundays.”

He wasn’t serious. Just cranking me up. Whate else is new? On his mind was an interesting deer sighting that had unfolded before his eyes an hour or so earlier on the lush lawn bordering the forest out his den’s large back windows. From the underbrush slid three handsome, antlered bucks — twin spikehorns and another older deer with larger antlers. All three of the deers’ antlers, covered in a thin, silky, olive-brown velvet, seemed to him to be fully grown. It doesn’t take long for bucks to remove this soft, thin layer and put a hard sheen on their antlers by rubbing saplings that keen hunters’ eyes always search for in an attempt to assess the buck activity in a given woodlot. Deer continue polishing their headgear right through the fall rut. By then, dominant bucks rub more aggressively and leave gummy saliva on branch tips, pine needles or even leaves while pawing furiously to make wide, splashy scrapes on the ground. Centered in the ripped-up turf at the base of these rutting trees is a prominent single hoof-print depression into which a “calling card” is urinated to mark territory.

Most interesting of the three sets of  antlers my buddy viewed was one of the spikehorn’s drop-tine lying flat against its face between its ear and eye and curling back toward its shoulder. “When I first noticed that heavy line running back across the face, I thought it was a gash or cut, so I grabbed my binoculars and glassed him,” he said. “Then I could see it was an antler bent back. He must have caught it on a tree or fence or something when it was still soft. I’ve read about that happening to deform antlers.”

The topic happened to be apropos for me. I had been giving much thought to bucks in velvet ever since a prolific emailer I hear from daily sent a photo of twin Leverett 4-pointers with velvet antlers that appeared fully formed on June 27, three days before my birthday. Long years of monitoring such natural wonders told me it was early for fully-grown deer antlers in velvet. I use my June 30th birthday as a measuring stick for that particular phenomenon, and sightings have always occurred after my birthday, with full growth typically occurring over the second half of July. But perhaps I was misremembering, like witnesses or suspects sometimes do. Or, then again, maybe  deer antlers, like virtually everything else during this spring and summer following an unusually mild, snowless winter were ahead of schedule.

Well, it didn’t take long for more data to appear from a colleague and neighbor I affectionately call Big Boiczyk. The young man often shares Greenfield Meadows wildlife sightings because he knows I like to keep track of such things. He told me of nearly hitting what he called “my buck” trying to cross Plain Road near the Nims Farm just after Fourth of July Weekend. He was referring to  an animal that is now a dominant 5- or 6-year-old racker with a distinctive splayed front hoof print I can  easily and do often recognize, having observed this wise old deer since he was a spotted fawn nursing his mom. Big Boiczyk claimed that deer was sporting a full set of nice  antlers in velvet, which, again, seemed early to me.

Then, just like that, more local data from buddy Rogie, another reliable, experienced and knowledgeable wildlife spotter, adding to the mystery with his Sunday sighting. So, fellas, take it to the bank — local bucks greeted Tuesday night’s soft, silver Full Buck Moon wearing full headgear in velvet.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac narrative explaining full-moon names, that’s uncharacteristic of June/July antlers. The almanac explains that the Indians called this moon the Buck Moon because, “July is normally the month when new antlers of buck deer push through  their foreheads in coatings of velvety fur.”

So, see, just like the broken-off, pointy-green-leaved, red-oak limb-tip I found floating down the Green River a couple of weeks ago, it sporting good-sized acorns that were, in my assessment, more indicative of August, deer antlers in this neck of the woods are also ahead of schedule.

Even though it’s vacation time and the two “credentialed” sources I tried to reach did not respond in time to add their insight before deadline, I’m more than confident that I’ve received enough evidence to confirm my suspicion, one based on many years of observation and formed with knee-jerk immediacy upon viewing that June 27 email photo of the twin Leverett 4-pointers on my high-def computer monitor.

Never in my recollection have I seen full velvet antlers like that before my birthday.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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Updated numbers that will be “final,” at least for American shad passage in the Connecticut River basin, arrived this week from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, who oversees our river for the United States Fish & Wildlife Service and announced that the regular spring lift schedule concluded Friday.

The shad numbers (392,067) dropped  a bit from  last year’s hefty total of 416,355. But,  on a more  positive note, the passage through Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., to the historic Bellows Falls, Vt., terminus was better than most over a long restoration effort. A total of 54,069 shad made it past Turners Falls this year, and of those fish, 35,732 passed Vernon and 1,973 were counted at Bellows Falls. Sprankle noted that the Bellows Falls number was a record while Vernon’s was No. 3 all-time.

Meanwhile, according to Coordinator Sprankle, “(Endangered) shortnosed sturgeon continue to enter the Holyoke facility in strong numbers, with 10 fish trapped on July 14 and eight more  trapped on Friday. Holyoke Fish Lift will operate on a shortened lift schedule specifically for shortnose through the summer and into the fall. … Many of the passage numbers remain provisional but are not expected to change much, with only a few end-of-operation dates/counts at upstream ladders missing at this time.”

As for Atlantic salmon, another has been counted since my last report, with a total of six now, compared to 22 last year. The sixth salmon was captured and tagged below the Leesville Dam on Connecticut’s Salmon River. The other five salmon were counted on the Westfield River (2) and at the Holyoke dam (3).

This is probably  this space’s final anadromous-fish-passage report of the season.

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A reader who viewed the photo accompanying last week’s column about a round, narrow, cement-filled, barrel-like obstruction (new photo from a different angle on Page D1) that log-jammed in the Green River — creating a high-water eddy whose swirling water had built a midstream sandbar or small island since last fall — believes the object is an old water heater. He’s probably right, and I must admit I initially considered water heater due to the one-inch pipe protruding from the capped top end. The reason I didn’t mention that potential identification was that the 12-inch, tube-shaped object seemed too narrow for a water heater.

“No,” said the reader, “some of those old water heaters were only eight- or nine-inches wide and a lot of farmers used them for different things, including culvert pipes. It looked like an old water heater to me in the photo.”

Case closed. I have reinspected it and do believe the reader is correct. It is an old water heater filled with coarse-gravel cement and used as a footing for a small bridge or riverside pier.

Observe, Ponder, Hypothesize

Strawberries have gone by, raspberries and blueberries are ripe for the picking, my roma tomato is waist-high and quickly climbing a 10-foot rebar stilt and, for a month or more, a 300-yard leg of my daily mile walk again ventures up the shallow Green River, always a refreshing summertime bonus for me and the dogs.

My pets’ fascination are the scents that draw them splashing back and forth and up and down the river and into the bushy wooded perimeters, always hunting, swimming, chasing; rollicking like euphoric children liberated after a long Xbox and boob-tube winter. But me, well, my curiosity was immediately drawn to a new midstream feature created between October and June. And still, everyday, I stop to evaluate this pointed, oblong, eddy-deposited sandbar island that sends my mind  back to an engrossing late-fall/early-winter research project focused on recreating what the majestic falls between Turners Falls and Riverside/Gill looked like in their natural, majestic, pre-colonial splendor.

Call this new midstream Green River feature a temporary, random, unintentional human obstruction. One dropped into place from who knows where, originally dislodged upstream by a powerful flood. It’ll eventually get jarred loose by another furious river surge and continue working its way slowly downriver until it vanishes into some deep muddy grave in the lower Green, or maybe the silty lower end of the Deerfield, even the mighty mother Connecticut, where over time it may become a forgotten remnant buried forever deep in black sediment.

Six or seven feet long, the key component of this logjam is a heavy, coarse-gravel and cement-filled 10-inch cast-iron tube with a centered 1-inch pipe capped by an attached right-angle elbow protruding from one end. Likely not sturdy enough to support a highway bridge, it must have been a footing for a riverside dock jutting out over a deep hole for swimming and diving and horsing around on hot, steamy summer days. Whatever it supported was likely washed away by Tropical Storm Irene many years ago. Undoubtedly, the cumbersome object will continue rolling and crashing along the stream bed to its final destination during only the most violent flooding. Were it not round, it would likely have stayed where it fell.

This new obstruction is multifaceted. The base is a prostrate, waterlogged dead fall solidly anchored into the stream bed. Behind it is the heavy, wedged-in cement-filled iron pipe, which  from time to time accumulates a tangle of vegetative debris behind it to create an impenetrable little midstream dam that forces the river around it on both sides, creating a little sandy-bottomed drop-off pool downstream to the left of the exposed sandbar island formed by the swirling eddy that appears only when the river’s high. Each event adds a new layer to the fine, fertile sandbar isle now greening in the summer sun. The dynamics of that natural river process reminded me immediately of the December discussion group I had joined in an effort to iron out differences and create an accurate drawing of what the Connecticut River falls at Riverside/Gill would have looked like before colonial European settlers discovered them. The problem is that they recognized the water-power potential and it didn’t take long for the natural treasure to be deemed ideal for dams, canals, industry and now electric-power generation.

The pre-contact beauty of the original, undisturbed falls has long been a fascination of mine, triggered by exhaustive research into historic and prehistoric anadromous fish runs and the temporary seasonal indigenous fishing villages they brought to known deep-history spring fishing sites. The most popular ancient Pioneer Valley fishing sites along New England’s longest river were at Riverside falls, Rock Dam a mile or so downstream and South Hadley Falls at the site of today’s Holyoke Dam. The intriguing topic of what the natural falls between Gill and Montague looked like was publicly raised by historian Peter A. Thomas at November’s monthly Great Falls/Peskeompskut Fight Battlefield Grant meeting.

“How can we map the battle before we map the landscape, which has changed dramatically,” queried Thomas at the public meeting. And how could anyone disagree?

Thomas’ query sparked immediate discussion at the meeting, followed by a lively interactive email exchange pulling in many interested parties, who went back and forth sharing information for weeks. Obviously, the landscape dictated where the indigenous fishing and fish-processing sites would have been situated, and also the location of any temporary villages as potential military targets for wee-hour ambush. The collaborative search was on.

The discovery mission  came to a head at a December weekend meeting of four minds at a private residence. The four-hour, fact-finding process included dynamic discussion, sharing of historic maps and documents, and a half-hour PowerPoint presentation displaying old photographs that documented the evolution and construction of the various Turners Falls dams. The photos were disturbing to anyone committed to preservation and conservation. Construction projects beginning after the Civil War and continuing into the 1960s unleashed a series of explosive interventions aimed at removing large chunks of sturdy bedrock protruding from midstream, forever altering an incredible geological formation and wonder of nature that had formed New England’s most beautiful and important waterfall. I told my wife that Indians would weep at the sight of the construction photos I saw. Such a maiming of river bedrock would be akin to removing their mother’s arms or legs. They post-blast photos looked like something out of 1945 Germany. Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Some chalk it up as progress. But in my world view preservation and conservation are worthy goals.

A week or two after that meeting of the minds, Thomas — supervisor of three Riverside archaeological excavations in the 1970s — had already sketched a remarkably accurate depiction of what the falls would have looked like on May 19, 1676. That infamous day in local history marks the Capt. William Turner-led battle known as the “Falls Fight,” widely  credited for  tuning the tide of King Philip’s War in favor of New England colonial troops. Thomas’ pencil sketch, dabbed with color, was based on all the information gathered over a month or so of interactive research and at times contentious debate. But the debate remained civil and eventually arrived at consensus a tad short of unanimous.

Perhaps the two most contentious issues bogging down the discussion were the 1.) location of Burnham’s Rock — which jutted out toward the Gill shore to funnel water down a narrow, 400-yard-long flume that was advantageous to gathering anadromous fish running upstream — and 2.) whether a three-acre hayfield ever existed on a flat, fertile plain at the base of Great Island, as claimed by Gill historian Ralph M. Stoughton (1879-1966), a third- or fourth-generation Riverside farmer whose family harvested the hayfield.

It is the hayfield argument that the recent discovery of the small new Green River island brought me back to. Having argued in favor of a hayfield on that island below the immense Great Island bedrock protrusion and above another smaller bedrock outcropping below, at the outflow of Fall River, this new sandbar below a river obstruction was to me a pale microcosm of a process that occurred often during river surges through the fishing falls between Gill and Turners Falls. During maximum-flow events through the site, Great Island bedrock stood tall and split the river, sending one roaring channel through the Gill flume and another over the wide stony bed along the Montague side that ran practically dry during low summer flows. This surge of split energy collided at the base of the falls with the outflow of Fall River, which, along with a sharp left-hand sweep of the Connecticut River and an outcropping of ledge, would have helped created a swirling eddy to deposit rich silt over the hayfield, which was protected and never took the full force of the destructive river. I have seen this many times on trout streams flooded and discolored by torrential summer rainstorms, and can picture it happening at the base of Great Island.

Thomas isn’t certain the hayfield could have survived increased flows and flooding brought on by 19th-century clear-cutting of Vermont and New Hampshire forest above Turners Falls. Those forests once absorbed a lot of water that never made it to the Connecticut River. But had construction crews not dynamited the massive, immovable bedrock foundation of Great Island, even if rare floods inundated it, the hayfield may have been sheltered  enough to remain intact. A large, stiff midstream outcropping like that still routes water around it even on the rare occasions when its overflowed, if ever it was. Who knows?

So that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. If the island was still there today in its original form and the dam wasn’t, I believe the hayfield would be there, too. That conclusion is drawn from daily observations on my river walks and from countless others made during more than 50 years of rainy-day fishing along free-flowing, high volume trout streams.

Enough! Off I go.

Rock Dam Ramble

Approaching noon on a sunny Fourth of July morning — a dry, refreshing northwesterly breeze perfect for hiking — and we’re crossing Gen. Pierce Bridge from Bingville to Montague City for a quick Rock Dam tour. Having never visited the site, a dear old pal from South Deerfield had called the night before suggesting a trip to the natural basalt dike and recreational haven that crosses the Connecticut River from its steep eastern bank to forested Smead Island, separated from the Greenfield shore only by a slim, shallow channel.

Looking upstream as we drive over the bridge, three or four wading anglers are enjoying the holiday, presumably not fishing for American shad, which stopped running a couple of weeks ago. By then, the daytime river temps had stabilized in the mid-70s Fahrenheit, signaling the end of shad fishing and the beginning of shad spawning, when the fish stop migrating upstream to establish permanent lairs.

Headed north toward Avenue A, we take a left over the iron bridge and into the Patch, referred to by smart-asses as the capital of Turners Falls. A left t’other side the bridge leads us to a paved road following the canal to Cabot Station, not far from where we park to walk a well-worn footpath to the river’s edge just below the narrow Rock Dam waterfall. Surprisingly, a moderate power-generating flow is obscuring the slim eight- to 10-foot drop another friend had observed just last week under lower-flow conditions. Luck of the draw in the world of power-producing rivers. Unfortunately, we arrived at the wrong time to see the narrow waterfall that at low volumes funnels the entire downstream flow over it. But fall or no fall, the entire flow was still being pulled through a 15-foot gap in the natural stone dike, and the flooded waterfall didn’t detract from the site’s beauty or mystique.

We walk quite a way downstream over the baked stone stream bed, inspecting rocks for ancient artifacts, old river-rounded bricks and familiar red Connecticut Valley sandstones among the mixed cobbles and flat skimming stones we used to skip across the water as kids. Then we double back toward the outcropping of ledge, 10 or 12 feet tall, framing the Montague side of the waterfall, which on this day appears more like a chute of flume for chartreuse- and hot-pink-clad kayakers.

Before jumping a shallow, two-foot-wide, rust-colored spring stream trickling out of the Montague bank to pick up a worn path over exposed roots and around knobby trees to the top of the ledges, we encounter a thin, gray-bearded, middle-aged man with two boys making their way down the hill with fishing rods in hand.

“You guys are fishing, too, huh?” I asked. “We saw three or four fishermen from the bridge and wondered what they were fishing for. Not shad, I assume.”

“No, shad-fishing ended a couple of weeks ago,” he answered. “Mostly bass this time of year. That’s probably what those guys downstream are fishing for.”

He turns slightly, facing upstream at Rock Dam, head lifted, nose into the breeze and says, “Can’t you detect that fishy smell. It’s dead shad. A lot of them die after spawning. When it smells like that down here, you know shad-fishing is over.”

The current, the white frothy water surging through the waterfall gap, and the gravel streambed has the feel of a trout stream like the Deerfield or Green River, not so far away. So I ask if trout are ever caught there.

“No, trout are a long-shot here,” he quickly resplied. “Maybe even a miracle.”

Not so, interjected my friend, a couple of years younger than me. His family farm borders the Connecticut’s western bank above Sunderland Bridge, and he had some veteran river wisdom to share.

“Trout use the Connecticut River more than most people think,” he said in a friendly manner. “Especially brook trout. That’s how they get into all the little unstocked brooks between here and Hatfield.”

It’s true. The Connecitcut works as a superhighway for trout of all kinds seeking suitable habitat with cold summer water. A classic example occurred many years ago when, fishing for shad from a motorboat below Sunderland Bridge with late friend Walter T. Kostanski Jr., and son Richard, I got a strike on my own willow-leaf lure and was quite surprised to discover a pretty 14-inch rainbow trout from one of the local hatcheries. Who knows where it came from? It could have been an escapee from the state hatcheries in Sunderland or Montague or, then again, it could well have come indirectly from either hatchery after getting stocking into the Deerfield, Green or Sawmill rivers upstream from our fishing location.

Something else about these small Connecticut River tributaries like Clapp Brook in Deerfield or Sugarloaf Brook in Deerfield/Whately. Early settlers used to catch shad and salmon around the mouths of such small streams when the water was high in the spring. There are written accounts of 18th century fishing hauls being made from the mouth of Sugarloaf Brook, which empties into the Connnecticut River at Herlihy Park in Whately.

Take it to the bank: an angler could still take shad there when the water’s right, usually during high-water big-river events that chase fish up smaller tributaries for temporary refuge from the wild main stem. So, yes, in these days of put-and-take trout fishing, a creative man can find trout where they ain’t stocked. Nice trout. No secret when I was a boy, and still true today. Not only that but, the liquid migratory superhighway known as the Connecticut River also delivers anadromous fish into those same small streams where most anglers would not dream of catching them.

Enough!

And to think that this entire narrative was inspired by a quick, simple holiday trip to Rock Dam — that magical ancient landmark that can really stir your creative juices, like a fiddle in a spring-floor ballroom. And, mind you, I didn’t even bite for that initial urge to approach the site from an altogether different angle — that of deep-history and indigenous lore, always more alluring and, better still, invigoratingly mysterious.

*************

Sticking to spring Connecticut River anadromous-fish runs, for all intents and purposes, they’re history.

Yes, a straggler Atlantic salmon might come through between now and fall-time. But does it really matter? Thus far a whopping five have been monitored in the river system compared to 22 last year.
Two of this year’s salmon are currently in the Westfield River system. The other three are in the Connecticut River system between Holyoke and Turners Falls — perhaps the Deerfield River but possibly even smaller tributaries like Sawmill River in Montague, Fall River in Gill or Mill River in Hatfield. Other possibilities include the lower Green River or possibly even such Deerfield River feeders as the South and

Bear rivers, or even Dragon Brook. Hey, for that matter, you might find one hidden away below the cold Hawks Brook falls just off the Shelburne  bank above the mouth of the South and the old Conway Station railroad-trestle abutment in the river.

As for American shad, well, a good year all in all with 384,996 through Holyoke and a total of 391,097 in the river, just a tad under last year’s totals of 412,656 through Holyoke and 416,355 in the river.
Meanwhile, the curious saga of Turners Falls’ shad passage remains perplexing indeed. Numbers released by Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle show 50,770 shad passing Turners Falls as of June 7 and 30,534 passing through Vernon, Vt., through June 15. As it stands today, only 13 percent of the shad that made it past Holyoke made it through Turners Falls as well, which may be misleading given that the run lasted two or three weeks longer than charted. On the other hand, 68 percent of the shad that  passed Turners Falls made it past Vernon, which is not a bad number.

Hopefully, we’ll see the day when Turners Falls gets it together and turnstiles the majority of Holyoke’s fish upstream, headed toward the annual run’s historic terminus at Bellows Falls, Vt.

Wishful thinking after all these years of expensive dysfunction?

Maybe.

No! Make that absolutely.