Cougars, the four-legged variety, are again on the front burner. … Well, sort of.
Truth be told, I have for more than a month been going back and forth on the phone and by email with a man named Ray Weber, spokesman for “Cougars of the Valley,” a local group in dogged pursuit of conclusive evidence that “extinct” Eastern cougars, though rare, are alive and well. Weber, nephew of late Pioneer Valley outdoor scribe Bill Chiba, knew I was no naïve, shivering virgin to cougar tales and, by golly, that I even had the audacity to defy respected authorities who implored, for the sake of my reputation and credibility, that I stop publicizing unreliable and unacceptable evidence called human sightings, which officials refuse to validate. To the contrary, government wildlife officials consider all sightings to be “misidentifications” — kitty cats back-lit and magnified by bright, low sun, or maybe even ghosts from pioneer days — because the only cougars here in this valley today smell of delicate French perfume and walk on two black stiletto heels.
Hmmmm? So how do you explain the wild, road-killed cougar that, lo and behold, less than two years ago, turned up on the side of a southern Connecticut highway not far north of the Big Apple? I suppose the fellas are still working furiously with professional spinmeisters to craft an acceptable excuse for that unfortunate, untimely catastrophe which couldn’t have come at a worse time, credibility-wise. No, you see, that big cat showed up a month after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s much-publicized announcement that its classification for the species called Eastern cougar had changed from endangered to extinct. Talk about egg on their faces. Well, they got it: a runny, orange double-yoker. Yum!
But enough harpoons! Back to Weber and “Cougars of the Valley” (COV), a network of wildlife enthusiasts placing trail cameras and conducting field research in snow-covered woods to investigate mountain-lion sightings. The group has recently been probing numerous reports from Huntington, the nearby “Hampton hilltowns” west of Paradise City, and Granby, t’other side the Connecticut River, where several sightings have been reported by residents and joggers who involved police. Thus far COV has gathered inconclusive photos of what could be an immature Granby cougar “kitten” with a barely discernible two-foot-long tail, another faraway shot of a large wildcat in high autumn grass that appears too tall and too long for a bobcat or Canada lynx, and a photo of a large, round, clawless Huntington paw print that’s not real clear, a blue shotgun shell alongside it in the snow for size reference. Accompanying that photo was this introduction to a Weber email: “We were on the hunt in Huntington again. Numerous sightings reported there of what’s being described by some as a 150- to 200-pound cat.”
A diligent man, Weber went promptly to the site, accompanied by a woodsman from town. They there concentrated on deer sign and found cat tracks “tailing or stalking deer” in two areas. The snapshot he sent me, which he described as the best track he found, was undefined and inconclusive. Even Weber himself admitted the tracking conditions and photos were not the best. But he’s not giving up on Huntington. Not by a long shot. Because he says the Westfield River township has for a century been a hot spot for cougar sightings, thus as good a site as any to employ modern surveillance technology.
Thus far Weber seems most intrigued by the possibility of substantiating the presence of an immature cougar, because, if indeed that’s what it is, and experts reviewing the film are leaning in that direction, it is likely that its mom is not far away. Myself, no expert on immature or adult cougars, I viewed the photos and found them so unconvincing that I decided against running one with this column. It looked like a bobcat or lynx to me, and I have seen bobcats and perhaps even a lynx in my woodland travels. Still, Weber is determined to prove me wrong.
“We will deploy more game-cams and try to get better photo evidence of this cat,” he wrote. “It’s very unique to get a chance at a juvenile. The habitat is perfect. Witnesses saw several deer exit the area right after they sighted the cat, so it’s clear why it is there.
“The COV biologist reviewed additional images (retrieved from a Sony trail camera) and said he could (with enhancement) see the tail,” he added. “It moves, has a black tip, and is not forest debris. It’s also consistent with the witnesses’ story. The facial detail, large, long legs, and big feet also are positives.”
COV, an offshoot of a similar Connecticut group trying to prove New England cougars are back, has been in existence for about five years. The website for the local COV branch can be found at www.mamountainlion.org, the one for Connecticut www.ctmountainlion.org. Weber invites anyone with fresh cougar evidence of any kind to contact his Pioneer Valley chapter, a committed group that passionately pursues clues.
Yeah, I decided to give ancient, local, ceremonial Indian landscapes and burial grounds respite this week, which doesn’t mean I’ve pulled myself from the turbulent Peskeomskut waters some pray will soon be swept into Long Island Sound by a violent spring freshet.
I have read all the news clippings, letterhead documents and notarized affidavits collected in scrapbooks over the past 50 years by amateur Northfield archaeologist George Nelson, and it is clear to me that there’s still a trove of subterranean archaeological treasure buried everywhere within no less than a mile radius of the Turners Falls dam. That probably includes rare spoke burials, one such documented by none other than George Sheldon, who mentions one found by T.M. Stoughton and son William on family property overlooking Peskeomskut during 1881 construction at the intersection of Main and West Gill roads.
I regret being unable to attend next week’s enticing Leverett Historical Society presentation on “Ceremonial Stone Landscapes” by Eva Gibavic, who will also show a provocative, 83-minute, Ted Timreck film “Great Falls: Discovery, Destruction and Preservation in a Massachusetts Town.” A quick Google search reveals that the DVD costs a cool $295 and can be rented for $95, so Wednesday’s 7 p.m. gig at the Leverett Library will be well worth the trip for truth seekers curious about a subject Chamber of Commerce cronies hope will vanish.
While I’m at it, let me recommend Margaret M. Bruchac’s excellent essay titled “Earthshapers and placemakers: Algonkian Indian stories and the landscape.” It is the most current and comprehensive scholarly work I have read on the subject and includes a fascinating look at the Pocumtuck Range’s “beaver myth” and other interesting Deerfield tidbits.
All I can say is, praise the stars in heaven for rare indigenous voices like Bruchac — an Abenaki with New World roots digging far deeper than Columbus and the butchers who followed in his sanguine Christian wake. Bruchac’s profound insights radiate from the seed of our continent’s core, and leave my Mayflower, Massachusetts Bay Colony and Nova Scotia Acadian roots looking very shallow indeed.
HOUSECLEANING: UMass anthropologist Elizabeth Chilton was uncomfortable with me paraphrasing her thoughts from a casual telephone conversation last week about archaeological-site secrecy. “I think instead of saying that ‘I wanted to prevent looting,’ I would have preferred you to say (we’re protective), ‘out of respect for the landowner and all of the stakeholders working together to both better understand and preserve archaeological sites,’” she wrote, explaining that: “One of the goals of my work is to break down the barriers between ‘avocational’ and professional archaeologists.” Sorry, Elizabeth. I stand corrected. But this sure does seem to be a subject of hair-trigger sensitivity. … Also, I misidentified Chilton as chair of the UMass Anthropology Department, which I took from her online UMass profile. She did serve two terms as chair (six years) but has since passed the baton. … Aforementioned George Nelson of Northfield was granted permission to pick northeast Greenfield’s Mackin gravel-bank for Indian artifacts in 1964 by late owner Peter Mackin, not John Mackin Sr., as reported here last week. I had specifically asked if it was Peter Mackin, whose beautiful hilltop home in Gill I knew, but was told no. Then, next day, after my column hit the street, Peter Mackin was named as the permission grantor in several newspaper accounts I reviewed from different sources. Oh well, it can happen on deadline.