Carlson Responds To Her Salmon-Study’s Critics

What? An attack on the New England Atlantic salmon argument developed by archaeologist Catherine Carroll Carlson in her controversial 1992 UMass-Amherst Ph.D. dissertation: “The Atlantic salmon in New England prehistory and history: social and environmental implications?”

You betcha! Dr. Carlson’s often-referred-to thesis has indeed been challenged. Which doesn’t mean Carlson is buying  the arguments of an obscure 2013 UMass research paper’s critical assessment of her conclusions. No sir. She’s firing back.

But first, a refresher on the Carlson theory, which shook the New England salmon-restoration establishment, and particularly those involved in the now-defunct Connecticut Valley program.

Based on the archaeological record from 75 known prehistoric Northeastern fishing sites, ranging from Newfoundland to Long Island, which were nearly absent of Atlantic salmon remains, Carlson concluded that salmon arrived with the Little Ice Age (1300 to 1850) and never existed in the inflated numbers reported in the earliest historical accounts. In fact, she even went so far as to suggest that some of the reports were intentionally exaggerated real-estate marketing ploys to attract emigrant settlers to infant New England. Plus, another factor contributing to overstating the salmon population was the misnaming of American shad as “white salmon” often mentioned in primary reports filed by early explorers and chroniclers who were not familiar with American shad,  the staple of anadromous fish stocks in southern New England rivers like the Connecticut.

And now the appearance of this 2013 report written by three UMass/Amherst researchers who conclude that the archaeological evidence Carlson based her thesis on was invalid because the screens used to sift the excavations were not fine enough to detect salmon remains. Thus, they argue, the archaeological record is unreliable and should not be and never should have been used to evaluate the feasibility of restoration projects, such as the failed, expensive state and federal Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Restoration Project discontinued after nearly 50 years in 2012.

“Thank you for contacting me on this,” Carlson wrote to conclude a recent response to an email alerting her to the report she had no knowledge of. “It’s curious that the authors and/or reviewers didn’t think to contact me. What does this say?”

Who knows? But it’s true that one would assume anyone critiquing a scholarly report written by a respected anthropologist/archaeologist from the same university would have had the courtesy to bring their conflicting interpretation to the author’s attention for potential feedback and discussion?

The 2013 UMass report titled “The use (and misuse) of archaeological salmon data to infer historical abundance in North America with a focus on New England” is the collaboration of S.F. Jane and A.R. Whiteley of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and K.H. Nislow of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northeast Research Station. The authors list three reasons for their new conclusion debunking Carlson’s findings:

1.) salmon bones were rare or absent at sites that still hold large salmon runs;

2.) the lack of salmonid bones in general at archaeological sites suggests poor preservation and/or recovery of bone relative to other fishes;

3.) given the presence of many non-salmonid andromous fish at sites where people fished and deposited bones, power to detect salmon bones in studies to date have been generally low.

To support these claims, the authors say they “present reliable historical accounts that help build a convincing case that salmon were historically abundant in New England rivers. We suggest that rarity of salmon bones in existing archaeological data should not have unwarranted influence on present-day conservation decision-making in New England.”

Hmmmmm? Doesn’t this new interpretation beg the question: Since when do “historical accounts” trump scientific research in such matters? Haven’t many historical accounts written by early explorers and colonists been proven by modern research to be biased, self-serving and unreliable? Worse still, think of the early “interpretations” that have by now been dismissed as pure rhetoric and propaganda peddled by victorious military, governmental and theological spokesmen and land speculators. So why should we believe without question the obviously fanciful folklore about walking across rivers on the backs of salmon, while dismissing the absence of archaeological salmon evidence at deep-history fishing sites where other fish bones and even fish scales 7,000 years old were recovered?

“Also,” wrote Carlson, recently retired Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Douglas College outside Vancouver, B.C., “I would continue to argue that Atlantic salmon had a brief increase in numbers in New England as a result of the Little Ice Age (LIA), then disappeared when the climate warmed.

“Dam-building began at the end of the LIA, after salmon had almost disappeared due to climate change,” she added. “So, dams are not the cause of the salmon demise. There’s so much new research on the effects of climate warming on Pacific salmon stocks that I am at a loss to understand why the authors won’t accept the LIA hypothesis. I completely disagree with their statement that archaeological data on salmon should not influence conservation decision-making.”

Carlson, a former Montague resident whose two sons were born in Northampton, is no amateur hack. A native of British Columbia, where she now lives and completed her B.A. Honors in Archaeology at Simon Fraser University in 1978, she’s a respected professional with a long list of impressive archaeological credits. After graduating from Simon Fraser, Carlson moved to the Royal British Columbia Museum, where for three years she worked in the bone lab, identifying thousands of fish and other vertebrate bones from archaeological midden sites on her Canadian province’s coast. She went on to do graduate work at the University of Maine/Orono, where her 1986 Masters of Science thesis involved the analysis of more than 30,000 fish bones from coastal middens near the Sheepscott and Damariscotta rivers. She then moved to UMass/Amherst, where she earned her Ph.D in anthropology and wrote her ground-breaking salmon dissertation.

Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., was her first stop as a teacher, working for 16 years as an associate professor of anthropology before settling in at Douglas College for the completion of her teaching career. She made a name for herself with her New England salmon dissertation, which was greeted by catcalls from the struggling state and federal Connecticut River Atlantic salmon-restoration proponents. That included officials connected with the Connecticut River program, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and virtually anyone committed to bringing salmon back to the Connecticut and Merrimack rivers, while also toiling to protect and enhance existing salmon runs in Maine and beyond.

Carson’s dissertation addressed questions as to why Atlantic salmon bones were absent at prehistoric sites across New England in places where historical accounts suggested that salmon were once abundant. She argued in favor of a climate explanation pertaining to the LIA, which would have shifted the southern extent of the Atlantic-salmon migration range to the Connecticut and, less so, Hudson rivers. Her report was the last thing supporters of salmon-restoration wanted to hear, and many officials tried to keep her findings hidden from the press. Then, when the press discovered it, the same officials did their best to discredit Carlson as wet behind the ears.

In recent discussion about the absence of salmon remains in the New England archaeological record, archaeologist Dr. Peter A. Thomas — who also received his Ph.D. from UMass/Amherst and played a key role in three Riverside/Gill archaeological digs that yielded no evidence of salmon — speculated that there may be hidden reasons why salmon remains are so rare. He said it was possible that indigenous people held Atlantic salmon in the highest esteem and thus disposed of their bones differently than other fish. He hypothesized that hunter-gatherers who attach special and maybe even sacred status to the king of gamefish may have thrown their bones back into the water rather than dumping them into riverside garbage pits, thus the absence or remains in riverside middens like those at the known Riverside/Gill site. But Carlson isn’t buying that hypothesis, either, saying she has heard it before; that the issue was raised, pondered and rejected during her dissertation process under the supervision of late UMass anthropologist/archaeologist Dr. Dina F. Dincauze, who died in August at 82.

Carlson then focused on her own Pacific Northwest to cite an example. There, she said, salmon remains are ubiquitous in the archaeological record at ancient fishing sites. “Why would salmon be viewed any differently out here?” she asked. “Our indigenous people had a first-salmon celebration. They’d celebrate the first salmon of the season caught with a thankful ceremony during which they’d throw the bones back into the river. Does that mean they threw every salmon’s bones in the river? I don’t think so.”

Still, in her mind, Thomas’ query was worthy of consideration because she had respect for him as a professional archaeologist and anthropologist with a long, impressive list of field-work credits and published reports. The same cannot be said of the UMass triumvirate that authored the 2013 report challenging her dissertation’s findings.

“They arrogantly claim I’ve misinterpreted the archaeological data, but that’s not even their field of expertise!” she emphasized, referring to the two environmental conservationists and a forester throwing academic harpoons her way.

“It’s true there have been are a few new sites in Maine with a very few salmon, which might suggest a very small number of pioneering pre-Little Ice Age colonizers, which makes sense,” she added. “The quantities of salmon bone are miniscule compared with other fish bone found in New England, not to mention comparison to sites in the Pacific Northwest.”

As for the 2013 Jane-Whiteley-Nislow report’s claim that the archaeological evidence Carlson’s dissertation was based on is invalid because the ¼-inch screen used to sift and collect remains was too coarse, Carlson totally rejects the criticism, despite more-recent excavations in Maine using 1/16th-inch screen that did uncover some salmon remains.

“At first glance, it’s same-old, same-old,” she wrote, referencing the triumvirate’s criticism, “Sampling, bone preservation, screen size, etc., all of which I can refute. …  The one comment that keeps coming back has to do with the fine-screening issue, which everyone out here knows is irrelevant to salmon. Salmon have large vertebrae that don’t go through quarter-inch screens. Fine-screening (i.e., less than 1/8 inch) is only pertinent to the recovery of small-boned fish, such as herring or tomcod (part of my MSc thesis methodology).‎

“I should probably write a rebuttal, and will seriously consider that.”

Stay tuned.

It sounds like this debate could get better. The Jane-Whiteley-Nislow report is just one interpretation regarding an open and complex deep-history issue, clearly not the final word.

Fire Warning, Chit-Chat From Orcutt Hill

Monday morning. The name Shirley Scott on my caller-ID.

Hmmmmm?

Who’s that?

With preplanned Monday-morning chores to complete ahead of Tuesday’s impending soaking rains, I delayed the return call till dusk, around 4 p.m.

Ms. Scott answered. I identified myself.

“Oh, hi, thanks for returning my call,” she said with palpable friendliness in her voice. “I’ve been reading your column for many years, have wanted to visit many times before and finally called. I’m so happy you called back.”

I had listened to her message and knew her key topic of concern. So, at least I knew where to start. But as it turned out, and not surprisingly, she had other subjects for discussion as well, including setting me straight on where Russell Dodge, featured last week in this space as an Ashfield resident, really lived.

“He’s my Buckland neighbor,” Scott reported. “In fact, that scabby-headed turkey he described was spotted staggering down to the foot of my driveway. I live on Orcutt Hill. The Ashfield line is not far away.”

Oooops! Sorry, Russell. Buckland it is. Not Ashfield. I should have known … or checked.

Returning briefly to that pathetic turkey, Ms. Scott says she has no shortage of the regal feathered creatures around her rural West County home but has seen only that one scabby-headed specimen, probably infected with the LPDV virus, or maybe turkey pox, both of which produce scabby heads.

“I wasn’t aware of those viruses affecting turkeys until I read about them in your column,” she continued. “Although that’s the only one I’ve ever seen, at this time of year, I often see anywhere from 30 to 50 turkeys in my yard. So, I’ll keep my eyes open. I hope that disease doesn’t spread.”

We quickly transitioned to the topic she had worked up the nerve to call about — the potential of forest fires from haphazard hunters tossing cigarettes butts while touring the heavily hunted hills around her home. She was speaking specifically of Orcutt, Drake and Putt’s hills, all popular deer-, bear- and turkey-hunting grounds dating back beyond her childhood days as a member of the Townsley family living in nearby Apple Valley, Ashfield, just a hop, skip and a jump south and west from her current residence.

“I was out walking (Sunday) on Orcutt Hill and it was really dry, the leaves crunching underfoot, and I was concerned that one misplaced cigarette butt could quickly ignite and burn down the whole hill,” she cautioned. “I thought it would be a good idea for you to write something about it in your column, reminding hunters to be awfully careful when smoking. Even after a heavy rain, the wind comes blowing through here and dries things up very quickly.”

Yes, indeed it is a fine idea to pass along Ms. Scott’s fire concerns, given what I myself have seen as a pheasant hunter working familiar coverts that are noticeably drier and crunchier than in recent memory. Not only that, but I often hunt with a smoker who’s taken more than one break to puff one down as I handle Chub-Chub through dense cover. I know when he’s smoking because he squats down and sits back on his haunches when he does so, with no near-catastrophic events to thus far report. But that comes as no surprise. Old Killer is an experienced woodsman, who obviously takes great care to extinguish his butts before moving on.

The many seed clouds I’ve accidentally sucked down my windpipe in high cover since the start of pheasant season is one indication of how dry it is. But more so I have been reminded of the drought in some coverts by my dogs’ reaction to a lack of water in brooks they have always sought out for refreshing drinks. Many are dry this year, which can affect a dogs’ performance. Gun dogs in need water overheat, lose energy and have a reduced sense of smell, the most important sense for locating and following fleeing birds. Thus, I have this year eliminated some trusty coverts, focusing instead on those with available water, be it from beaver ponds or streams still running strong, though not as strong as usual.

The best water sources are those that gundogs can walk right out into and submerge themselves as they drink. Such streams or ponds providing not only a remedy for thirst but also a cooling agent to relieve an overheated animal. I have literally witnessed a field-trial dog, accustomed to instant gratification during training and trials, break down to the point where she needed to be carried exhausted out of the field after an all-out hour of hunting through dense cover. Not a pretty sight, and not one anyone would want to repeat often. A dog could keel over and die from such exhausting events.

“How’s Lily?” asked Ms. Scott, a woman who has never laid eyes upon my 12-year-old gundog who’s finally showing her age. It’s truly incredible how many people have asked me that question the past month or so, most of them readers who’ve never met Lily but have read about her geriatric decline this fall right here.

I first speculated that Lily may be dealing with problems resulting from mini-strokes or TIA’s. But then several readers whose older dogs had over the years been diagnosed with “old-dog syndrome” or vestibular disease wrote to inform me that the vertigo symptoms I described were associated with it, an inner-ear issue that affects balance.

Well, this week the mystery deepened. Out of the blue, the bounce in Lily’s step improved dramatically and she’s running hard, jumping up into the truck bed and, from the wag of her tail, appears to be happy as Old Grannie Mae chit-chatting at the Senior Center’s tea and crumpets social. Hey, in dog’s age Lily’s pushing 90. Maybe she’s just getting old and just has her good days and bad. Even that is sad, though, if you dwell on it, because back in her heyday, she never had a bad day, punishing dense cover like it wasn’t there to produce showy, cackling flushes followed by lightning-fast retrieves from thorny wetland tangles.

Back to the dry, waterless issues confronting many New Englanders these days, Ms. Scott says the woodland brooks and ice pond above her home are bone dry, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s toured local woods regardless of the elevation. As a result, she says she hasn’t seen many deer around her home, but has seen them elsewhere, “I think because you see them where there’s water,” she opined.

Another example to underscore drought issues reared its head recently on Ms. Scott’s property, in her backyard water gardens fed by a prolific well that just keeps on giving. “We had otters showing up looking for fish,” she said. “It’s that bad in the woods up here. Dry as dry can be. A real tinderbox.”

Before wrapping up our conversation, I wanted to get Ms. Scott’s impressions of the mast crop up in the highlands that I really have not gotten a chance to evaluate myself. From her description, the upland situation seems to mirror that of the flatlands. But let her describe it. No card-carrying botanist, ecologist or forester, Ms. Scott is graced with homespun sense-of-place logic, which often trumps classroom learning from even the finest schools.

“There are plenty of acorns, which seem to have come down earlier than usual this year,” she reported. “The (commercial) apple crop is OK, but nothing like last year’s, and there don’t seem to be any wild apples to speak of. We had some early wild apples, but they quickly dried up and fell. Not a good year for wild apples. Too dry, I think.”

Take it to the bank, Ma’am. But just a word of caution: Don’t say it too loud.

Why?

Because soon global-warming denying bible-thumpers will be in charge in the US of A.

Oh my.

Chat With A Hilltown Squire

Finally, after overnight temps in the 20s brought two straight killer frosts, the front-yard Japanese maples were shedding their bright red November leaves as the upland horizons changed from their yellow to copper splendor, pinpointing oak groves and potential deer-hunting hot spots when acorns are on the ground. Yes, it’s the time of year for perceptive hunters to define distant oak groves to explore.

But enough of that. An interesting name appeared on my caller-ID Monday morning. It was Russell Dodge from Ashfield. He had called Sunday evening when I was at work. A devoted upland bird hunter, he and I for years competed for pheasants behind his Uncle Bob Thayer’s Hopewell Farm that straddled the Whately/Hatfield border west of the small, private airport off River Road. The reason I am willing to pinpoint the location of a special bird-hunting habitat now is that there are no pheasants there anymore. Sad but true. But back in the day there were plenty, with occasional partridge and woodcock to boot, plus migratory ducks stopping over in a small spring-fed pond, now a larger beaver pond covering the road we once drove through that parcel. Indeed, that once-productive piece of the Hopewell Swamp following the base of a steep escarpment that defines the western terminus of the river flood plain from Mt. Sugarloaf’s southern base to Hatfield Pond and beyond used to get stocked every week by state trucks and the Hatfield Fish & Game Club, its pheasant pen out past Hatfield Beef and the  dump.

I returned Dodge’s call to chat around 10 a.m. Monday. “Pushing 80,” he says he’s slowed down a bit and passes on dense cover he once attacked with fearless aplomb. He even  admits to not being sure  how much longer he can chase this lifelong passion that keeps him eager and spry. That said, he had just finished cleaning a couple of pheasants he bagged  in Hatfield earlier that morning, arriving just after first light with his trusted 9-year-old springer spaniel, Buddy, son of my own late gundog Ringo and Tiger Lily, today old and fading at 12.

Nearly a generation older than me, Russ has deeper memories of a Connecticut Valley bottomland dominated by working farms and a pre-development, reproductive pheasant population helped along by annual state-game-farm releases of surplus bloodstock hens. Such birds were, until the 1980’s, off limits to hunters and capable of pairing up with survivor cock birds to produce spring broods similar to those that fed under my family’s South Deerfield cherry tree out by the peony beds. We agreed that the pheasant-hunting prospects were better back when private coverts received far more birds than the state’s Wildlife Management Areas, which have multiplied like urban pigeons over the past 30 years. As a result, management areas today receive the lion’s share of birds and the hunting pressure, once spread much thinner over widespread private land, is now concentrated on an ever-growing list of state-owned coverts that are stocked at least twice a week and draw quite a crowd.

Soon, there will be no one left who remembers the good old days when pheasants could be found spread throughout the fertile valley, in its seed-filled golden rod and ragweed fields and their bordering cattail and alder swamps. Those were the days when farmers smiled and raised their arms for welcoming waves on your way through the barnyard. If you stopped to chat, the farmer would tell you when their property was last stocked, how many birds were released, and where down the road the next stop was. There are still a few places like that left. In fact, I hunted one Saturday and ran into an old friend passing by with a dead cow in his bucket loader — but these private coverts are going the way of rotary telephones, soon to be not only gone but forgotten.

A longtime member of the Hatfield club that raises and stocks some 250 birds a year to supplement state stocking in its town, Dodge has been a member of many Sunday stocking crews. He believes it’s no exaggeration to estimate that up to 35 percent of the birds stocked today are in less than 24 hours lost to predators like coyotes, foxes, fishers and especially birds of prey. Like me, he has witnessed sharp-shinned hawks fly out of a tree-line perch to catch a freshly released flying pheasant by pouncing on it just before it hits the ground, pinning it momentarily to the turf before flying back up onto the same muscular limb for lunch. “By the next morning, 30 to 35 percent of the birds we’ve stocked are gone and unavailable to hunters,” Dodge said, basing his opinion on decades of personal observation and stocking chores.

Truth be told, all of our pleasant, spontaneous chatter about this and that related to pheasants and wetlands and pheasant hunting unfolded after touching upon Dodge’s most urgent reason for calling me. With his dear gundog Buddy getting up there in age but still a flush-and-retrieve force in the field, he’d like to find a female mate to pass on what he considers to be a superior pedigree.
“If you hear of someone with a good bitch looking for a stud, let me know,” he said, admitting he may not be up to raising another dog himself at his age. But one never knows. Just last year I spoke to two 87-year-old hunters out hunting with dogs in punishing covert.

“He’s the best gundog I’ve ever owned,” said the man who’s owned many, “and I’d love keep his line going. It’s that good and, in my opinion, worth continuing. He sleeps right here at the foot of my bed and has no flaws in the field. He’s a great gundog and companion.”

Having felt the same way about many of my own gundogs, most purchased from professional field-trialers and breeders, I know what he’s feeling and will indeed keep my eyes and ears open for a good ole boy and friend from the hill towns.

—————

Although I hesitate to kick the rumor ball upfield, Dodge reported a peculiar turkey sighting worth sharing. Quite by coincidence, up in the hills, he ran into what he believes was the first turkey he’s seen stricken with the scabby-head disease we’ve all by now read about or heard of. LPDV and avian pox are viruses that have been around awhile, entering New England over the past five years and are characterized by ugly, scabby heads and sometimes leg scabs.

Dodge said he was driving when he spotted the peculiar bird crossing a back road. When he stopped to get a better look, the big bird appeared to be disoriented and actually headed right for the door he had opened.

“That’s when I knew there was something seriously wrong,” Dodge reported. “I believe that turkey would have jumped right in had I let it.”

That’s not to say for sure that Avian pox and/or LPDV are here in Franklin County, but, then again, why would it not be here? The disfiguring viruses have been detected in New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania and are said in online reports to be found worldwide and to have infiltrated the eastern United States. Now, with local turkey populations as strong as ever after a virtually snowless winter that minimized winter mortality, and by a dry spring creating optimal nesting conditions, maybe Mother nature is jumping in as a leveler to intervene with disease like only she is capable.

Perhaps other local observers will come forward to report sightings of wild turkeys displaying scabby heads and peculiar behavior. MassWildlife wants to know.

Big Conway Buck Bagged

It didn’t take Jimmy Recore, 54, long to score — and score big … real big — right in his Poland neighborhood of Conway during the ongoing archery deer season.

Yes, there he was, opening day and getting dark with 6 p.m. quickly approaching, positioned 12 to 14 feet high in his portable tree stand, rain sprinkling down, when he detected movement and saw a trophy buck slowly feeding his way through the woods on acorns.

“He was coming slowly and my first thought was that he was going to get to me too late,” Recore recalled. But this time his knee-jerk intuition backed by 39 years of bowhunting and 34 kills, was dead wrong, because, “He came to me as though he was on a string, walking right into a lane 20 yards away.”

That’s when Recore let his first arrow fly and missed high, the big deer moving temporarily behind an oak tree before popping back out into sight to continue devouring acorns, this time moving even closer, to within 10 yards. Arrow notched, Recore again let fly, this time delivering a bulls-eye through the vitals, piercing both lungs just a few minutes before 6.

The deer fled and Recore was all shook up, reaching immediately for his cell phone to text his wife, his daughter and his hunting buddy Jim Robator, who was the first on the scene to help find and remove the deer from the woods. It hadn’t gone far. There it was, less than 50 yards away, lying prostrate on the path Recore uses to get into his stand. “Wow!” Recore thought as he stood over this monster 8-pointer with massive, symmetrical, typical antlers and a big, thick neck and body to match. “This deer is bigger than I thought.”

Recore and Robator field-dressed the big animal, took photos (see Page D3) and dragged it out of the woods in the customary darkness all veteran deer hunters must learn to cope with while performing such messy chores. Curious what it weighed when they got it home, Recore hung it on his scale, which he believes is accurate, and got a “preliminary” weight of between 234 and 235 pounds. Then, by the time he got it to the Sunderland Hatchery checking station the next morning, the official platform scale there recorded the weight at 225 pounds. Could it have lost almost 10 pounds to overnight dehydration in warm temperatures even though packed with ice to preserve the meat? Yes, it’s possible, but why even go there? No matter how you cut it, Dude, a 225-pound western Massachusetts buck is about as good as it gets, not to mention the largest buck ever taken by Recore himself over a long, diligent and successful bowhunting career.

Like many an old-time deer hunter, Recore — who works at UMass for the grounds crew and helps out as an assistant girls’ track coach at Frontier Regional School — used the September opening of squirrel season to scout deer, assessing feed and sign through the oaks. He had seen his buck once while hunting squirrels, sure he could recognize its distinctive rack, but had no clue of its body mass until he stood awestruck over its carcass.

An old-school, throwback bowhunter, Recore retired his compound bow in 1993 and “went traditional,” digging out his old, 1968 Bear Grizzly recurve with a pull only a strong man can hold. Not only that, but he makes his own fletching for his arrows, including the one that killed the big buck, from the wing feathers of wild turkeys he’s killed. His broadheads, too, were antiques of sorts, from the Sixties, called Green Bear razor heads, with two razor inserts. Apparently, his antiquated equipment still works just fine in the right hands.

Recore decided on a European mount to adorn his den wall. His trophy buck’s head is now in New Jersey, where cadaver beetles will pick it clean, eventually leaving a white, bleached-out skull and antlers for display. The 5-year-old buck’s antler spread was 21 inches, again in the rarified Pioneer Valley air of spreads.

Not only does Recore use traditional equipment, he has a vintage way of thinking that’s rare among the dwindling contemporary hunter pool. He says his late father instilled in his sons two bowhunting values he has never violated: that is, never shoot more than 20 yards and obey all game laws. Though not critical of those who use newfangled deer-hunting accessories to improve their chances, he himself does not choose to “rattle,” employ grunt or doe-in-heat calls and attractants, and he doesn’t set up trail cameras to scope out his prospects and improve his chances. Plus, he says, he is not a selective hunter focused only on big bucks, big-buck pools and big-buck clubs. No, that’s not necessary in his world. “To me,” he said, “any deer killed by bow and arrow is a trophy. I’d rather be a woodsman than a man who relies on technology.”

As for observations that could be helpful to deer hunters coming down the stretch to the Nov. 26 end of season, Recore says the breeding season or “rut” has finally arrived. He started noticing scrapes on Saturday, a few days after the early snowstorm that blanked the uplands with up to six inches of snow last week.

Over the years, Recore claims that three dates have been particularly rewarding to him as a bowhunter. One of them, ghoulish Halloween, has already passed. But still ahead are Veterans Day and the day after Thanksgiving, both of which have been productive.

So, somehow you get the feeling that if Recore hasn’t yet filled his second tag by either of those two remaining prime hunting dates, he’ll be climbing up into one of his Conway stands come 3 p.m. to sit it out till dark, just like he did on that Oct. 17 opening day.

With a big one already in the freezer, there’s not an ounce of quit in Jimmy Recore when it comes to bowhunting for deer.

Hunting Forward, Looking Back

Whew! With last week’s summer-like 80-degree weather behind us, let the pheasant season begin.

Not that I’ve been pounding the coverts this week compared to days of old. No, not even close. But I did finally get out, did meet Frontier Regional School baseball coach Chris “Skinny” Williams for our first afternoon engagement, did give my dear, 12-year-old gundog Lily a test run that didn’t go well, and will indeed soon start kicking the hunting season into high gear with cooling temps brought by winter harbinger winds from the north.

First, Skinny, just a kid at 25, eager and willing to learn a new game. He watched Lily try to negotiate difficult, dense cover she used to cut through and bound over with ease and assessed her condition as “hurting,” which was right on the money. And he had never seen her  heyday, so had nothing with which to compare that day’s performance. This vestibular disease that seems to have progressed and leaves her balance off-kilter displays symptoms similar to human vertigo. In an open, shin-high hayfield of clover, timothy and rye, it would take a discerning eye to detect her occasional wobble because her tail still wags with a happy rhythm to match her joyful, light-footed gait. But put her in the dense, thorny tangles Skinny watched her struggle through Monday afternoon, and it’s clear something ain’t right. That, I’ll just have to live with, letting the cards fall where they may.

Minus the many personal sentimental reasons related to hunting over Lily in her prime as a covert-busting dynamo, my problems are at the max minimal with 5-year-old Chubby in his prime and in many ways, a superior bird dog to his mother; he’s bigger, faster, longer-legged and a tad more biddable, an animal that aims to please for the simple payback of love and affection. Yes, he has all of Lily’s finest attributes, and then some. So it’s not like I’m in a bad place in the gundog department.

That said, it’s tough to witness Lily’s demise, and even more difficult to leave her behind when Chub-Chub and I ramble off for hunts that she so loves and was bred for. I have no choice. Displaying her typical indomitable will during Monday’s hour-long hunt, she battled obvious balance issues and it took a lot out of her, tiring her more than I can ever remember and lingering overnight and well into the next morning. She didn’t even want to leave her aromatic, cedar-shavings-filled, box-stall barrel at 8 a.m. I may give her another go here and there in cover I think she can handle, but for all intents and purposes, it’s clear to me that Lily’s days as a gundog are finished. Happens to the best of them.

When I know the four-legged lady I affectionately call Lily-butt is suffering, or not eating, or incapable of normal geriatric-dog activity, I’ll do the right and honorable thing I wish I could have done when my sons were struggling with hospital infections during their final, tortuous days, waiting for their last death-bed breaths, connected to this and that outrageously expensive hospital contraption, none of which could save them. Talk about helpless, I’ve seen helpless and hopeless in vivid, living, poignant color that no man should be forced to endure. And they call it dying with dignity, which I can’t say I understood. Some may call that I witnessed dignity. Not me. Spare me, please.

Anyway, on a happier note, can you imagine a more humorous, potentially raucous hunting arrangement than the one that’s fallen into my lap this fall? Here I am an old man, 63, limping but still plugging, showing the ropes to a kid nicknamed Skinny — nicknamed because he was a plump young boy — hunting over a springer spaniel named Chubby because he displayed that body type for his first six months on this planet. Today, there is nothing Chubby about Skinny or my Chub-Chub, who may not be in absolute, tip-top hunting shape just yet, but soon will be an athletic, acrobatic, 50-pound bundle of sprinting, slicing, bounding, hopping, flushing and retrieving fury — an absolute joy to watch, and such a showy indicator.

My primary challenge this fall will be teaching Skinny Williams the nuances of bird hunting, kinda like he instills in his ballplayers the fine points of hitting and baserunning and pitching to hitters’ weaknesses to set them up for failure; of thinking middle when mired in  a batting slump fueled by overconfidence and over aggressiveness, or when confronted with a do-or-die at-bat that demands discipline, patience and total focus.

I myself was about Skinny’s age when I started to really hone my bird-hunting and dog-handling skills. I started pheasant hunting by walking two- and three-abreast through tick cover, stopping often to listen for birds fleeing from us through crunchy cover. Sometimes they’d fly as we closed in and get shot. Other times we’d hunt them down and shoot them on the ground, an absolute no-no when hunting behind a gundog. Along the way, after several annoying misses, you learn how to lead that straightaway shot that inexperienced hunters so often miss low, or how to let a bird flying right at you pass overhead before shooting. Like hitting a baseball, that particular shot takes discipline and experience. You simply see it flushing directly at you, spin around 180 degrees, mount, and wait for the bird to reappear going away. That’s when you touch off a shot, watch the bird drop and the dog retrieve it from a tagled mess. Oftentimes the retrieve is blind, on the other side of a tall, stream-side alder row, and interesting to watch the dog’s incredible instincts take over.

Skinny got a little taste Monday, just a nibble. It won’t long before he’s sitting down at the banquet table making a pig of himself. Promise. Let the good times roll.

Eventually, he’ll likely get married, settle down, buy his own gundog and go off on his own, teaching his kids and their friends the tricks of an enjoyable game that remains alive long after team sports. Me, I’ve been there, done that many times, and now I’m doing it again and looking forward to it. Great Spirit willing, this won’t be my last rodeo. Remember, I have two grandsons, 10 and 7, who may want to learn to wing-shoot and handle gundogs.

Then again, perhaps the boys will take the path of my own late sons, one of them their dad, both of whom as boys loved to tag along and watch the dogs’ flush-and-retrieve routine. In the end, neither of my boys had the stomach for killing. I had no problem with that, was totally accepting and understanding.

It may be difficult to comprehend but, to me, the worst part of hunting is the taking of life. The best part is healthy, challenging outdoor activity, figuring out the game, playing it well and sharing with others what you’ve learned and perfected.

Claw Scars Stir Speculation

With bowhunters sitting in their treestands these days, one of them, Steven Curtis of East Colrain, pulled into my driveway noontime Saturday. Meeting for the first time, he wanted  to share color trail-camera photos of a claw-scarred deer other hunters in adjacent stands may soon become acquainted with …  pondering  the possibilities.

This doe, probably in the 100-pound range, displays deep, unmistakable, thought-provoking, healed claw marks gouged across both  ribcages. Obviously, she somehow escaped a large, clawed predator, which judging from the available photographic evidence, pounced on her back and tried unsuccessfully to take her down for  venison dinner.

A bear? Bobcat? Um, dare we suggest … a cougar? Hmmmm? Who knows? The jury’s out. But in Curtis’ experienced-woodsman assessment, and mine, the scars holler wildcat, and most likely cougar. Yes, quite possibly a wayward young male disperser far away from his distant western birthplace, wandering far and wide eastward for females and his own new territory. Such a cat would be immature, inexperienced and not quite a man yet. Thus, perhaps, the doe’s miraculous escape.

Think of the possible scenarios of attack by such an animal, which would either jump down from a low, sturdy tree limb or off a shelf of mountain ledge overlooking a tight pass. Then again, yes, I suppose it could have launched the attack from ambush cover at ground level, though that seems less likely. Regardless, there are many sites that meet all three descriptions in our vast forested uplands, and none can be ruled out just yet without expert testimony.

Now, mind you that I have been told in the past by credentialed wildlife experts — respected sources such as former MassWildlife Deer Project Leaders Jim McDonough, John McDonald and Steve Williams — that bobcats and northern lynx will indeed take down a young deer by pouncing on its neck from above, simultaneously breaking the spinal column and opening the jugular with its teeth in one lethal fell swoop resulting in instant paralysis and rapid death. But a bear attacking in such a fashion from above? I have never heard of that.

I put out a feeler to an expert who has not yet responded. So I’ll wait for a response and I’ll keep you posted.

My guess? Well, dare I say another cougar disperser passing through my neighborhood? Yes. That’s the way I’m leaning. No, can’t be sure, but the scars along both of that Houdini  doe’s ribcages scream mountain lion.
————–

What an amazing outpouring of sympathy and amateur diagnoses from dog-owning readers concerned about my 12-year-old springer spaniel gundog, Lily, who’s getting old and showing visible signs of age.

Last week in this space, I described my pet’s second troubling spell characterized by unsteadiness on her feet and inability to jump up onto my truck tailgate, which has since her juvenile days been no problem.

Given many thoughtful responses to last week’s column, I have to believe Lily’s dealing with vestibular disease, a vertigo-like affliction related to the inner ear that’s basically untreatable, according to several dog owners who have done what they could to cure it and ended up just living with it.

Several correspondents said vets sometimes refer to it as “old-dog syndrome,” which I can live with because Lily is indeed an old dog, not to mention one tough bitch and alder-swamp buster. Her registered name is Old Tavern Farm’s Tiger Lily, and she has lived up to it every day of her life.

One correspondent from up the hill in Heath emailed me with his diagnosis and then, a day later pulled into my driveway with his 14-year-old bitch, Lois, lying contently on his black Silverado’s front seat. The disease more advanced than Lily’s, Lois displayed somewhat cloudy eyes and subtle side-to-side head movement. I witnessed this same head motion for a day or two after Lily’s first seizure-like event in the spring, but it faded fast and has not returned.

Though still not certain whether Lily will be able to perform in the field this year, I am not quite ready to write her off just yet. Last week, a few days after her latest setback, she maneuvered through a dense wild-rosebush border and continued south through dense, thorny wetland brush to flush a pair of woodcock, one after another. So let’s just say the instinct and desire lives on. I have an idea she’ll flush and return some pheasants in the coming weeks.

That said, here it is Day 5 of the pheasant season, and I have yet to slip into my Filson bibs and pound my favorite coverts. Still early, friends who’ve been out report flushes are few and far between, which doesn’t surprise me early. Pheasant hunting always improves after birds have been stocked for several weeks, compared to the Week 1 birds quickly wiped out by the opening-day onslaught.

Trust me, I will get out this week. I’ve been busy thus far, plus it’s been way too hot for my liking this week. So, let the birds multiply and the temperatures drop and we’ll be up to our old tricks, me and Chubby and Cooker or Killer or even new man Skinny Williams, who texted colleague Big Boiczyk Sunday evening about setting up a Saturday hunt. Though I hate hunting Saturdays and bucking the crowds, I just may take Skinny out, even if he is a school teacher. I seldom got along with schoolteachers, though there were rewarding exceptions. Skinny’s saving grace is that he’s Frontier’s baseball coach and I’m an old hardball man from way back. Plus, he’s a childhood friend of my boy, Johnny Pepyne, the infamous Frontier schoolboy entrepreneur. So, yes, this pairing of Smikky and me may just bear succulent fruit.

We’ll see. Well worth a try. I dare him to demand I raise my hand before asking questions. All that would do is stir up old issues.

Mortality’s Knocking

The northern view through my tall west-parlor back windows now displays a line of brilliant, yellow-orange brookside maples slowly shedding leaves in autumn’s variable sunny breezes, before the overnight cold quickly turns them brown and crunchy underfoot. Sitting and watching the leaves drop like feathers to the ground Wednesday morning immediately pulled my thoughts to Lily, a dear 12-year-old springer spaniel gundog and companion who’s fading.

Lily’s had another setback, and now it is clear that she will not see her 13th birthday on Aptil 28. No spring chicken but still rollicking with a joyful gait and tail-wag, and showing not a hint of appetite loss, Lily is, after all, pushing 90 in dog’s age. So, well, let’s just say mortality is indeed knocking on the door and appears to be creeping in with bird season here. Woodcock season opened last week and closes Nov. 19. Pheasant season opens Saturday and ends on Nov. 26.

So, will Lily hunt this year? A week ago I would have said yes, definitely, and she may well surprise me yet and rise to the occasion in the coming six weeks. But, as it stands right now, I’m not counting on ever again seeing her retrieve to me, head high and proud, a plump cock pheasant between her jaws. She’s endured  another troubling spell, one that has for now thrown her off-kilter, her motor skills affected, albeit slightly.

I witnessed her first seizure-like event just days after her 12th birthday on my daily morning trip out back to feed her and 5-year-old son Chubby inside the mouth of a backyard cook shed built to mimic a blacksmith’s forge. I had backed the truck alongside the barn, settling the back tires into a lawn depression to reduce the height the dogs needed to clear onto the tailgate, and could hear Lily barking enthusiastically for breakfast and our robust walk to follow. I dropped the tailgate and opened the wire porta-kennel doors before walking back into the cook shed, opening the covered plastic container atop a wooden table and dumping a scoop of dried food into both rust-brown Wagner skillets, — Lily’s a No. 7, Chub-Chub’s No. 8.

Upon freeing the dogs  by opening the kennel door, both of them sprinted eagerly to their breakfast plates as they always do.  Chubby dove right in but, curiously, Lily did not. Instead, she stopped a foot short and started acting in a peculiar manner, refusing to go the final inches to her food. It was as though a rattlesnake was coiled in front of the skillet, or perhaps something else that she didn’t want to tangle with. She started panting, smacking her lips, drooling and appeared to briefly lose her balance, never falling but stumbling to one side as she circled away toward a nearby stonewall. I thought maybe she had gotten into poison or been bitten by something on her  previous night’s ramble across the brook. Or maybe she had swallowed a hornet or spider, judging from the way it appeared she was feeling something uncomfortable in her mouth or throat.

As she stood next to the stonewall, still acting strange, she again stumbled a bit, looked like she was struggling with something in her mouth or throat, and circled to the left, around a twin bass tree to the back corner of the barn, where she stood straight, looked down and started smacking her lips and moving her head slowly from side to side. I called her and she came trotting my way, passing me to her food, where she stuck her nose down into the skillet and proceeded to eat at her normal pace. When done, as usual, she ran to the truck, showing a slight wobble in her gait, one that would take a keen eye to decipher, but she would not try to jump up onto the truck’s bed. I reached down to assist her and she staggered into her porta-kennel before quickly regaining her balance, standing and spinning around to face me.

“Hmmmmm?” I thought, perplexed. “I’ll have to see how she does on the walk,” which I must say surprised me. No. Check that. It stunned me.

After securing her in my arms and placing her on the ground in the hayfield we walk, she ran off as she always runs, displaying a light, happy gait and joyous tail, but still a little stagger here and there, which seemed to improve as we  progressed. By the end of our mile or more walk, she showed less sign of balance issues, though I did have to lift her up onto the tailgate to get her into her porta-kennel.

Once home, I kenneled the dogs and, because it was Saturday, my veterinary options  few, I went inside and immediately phoned the animal hospital in South Deerfield to describe what I had just witnessed to someone I surmised could diagnose the dog’s problem. No such luck. Maybe my description was confusing. I doubt it.

“Well,” I said. “I’ll just keep an eye on her and see what develops,” saving myself a bundle.

And monitor her I did that day and for many to follow, the athletic sporting animal showing steady progress to the point that, within two or three weeks, she was actually back jumping up into the truck and back down without assistance. I suspected a TIA or mini-stroke but, not being a doctor, couldn’t be sure. She could also have gotten into something. I continued observing her daily, and she continued to improve to the point of coming all the way back to her pre-seizure or TIA state. Honestly, all summer she was running up and down steep hills, through rivers, swimming, and getting in and out of the truck unassisted on most occasions. A miracle? Maybe, but I wasn’t quite convinced. After all, she is 12, old for a springer, the longest any of mine have endured.

And now this new development after a carefree summer of daily romps, river walks and ridge-top rambles. This latest harbinger of the end occurred noontime Monday following  a good, brisk mile walk. Visibly hesitant to attempt a jump up onto the truck, I was alert to her body language and gave her a little boost. She cleared the tailgate, staggered sideways and stumbled into the crate face first before standing up unsteadily and turning to face out. Hmmmm? What was that all about?

Since then, there’s been steady, slow progress but she’s not right, even though her appetite and happy tail-wag is normal, her light, happy gait altered slightly at times. I must admit I have intentionally kept her away from the steep edge of an escarpment we pass along our daily walk. I’m not eager to retrieve a pet that has tumbled down a high, treacherous, eroded sandy bank. It would be a project.

Who knows? Ole Lily-butt may just bounce back once again. Doc Schmitt himself called her a “tough bitch” with a fond twinkle in his eye after a birthing process gone bad. Not much has changed in the five years since, which were complicated by a bad infection along her ribcage from a beaver-pond puncture wound that required surgical intervention. She’s still plenty tough.

Although this recent event was not as serious of the one in April, I’m now confident she’s dealing with geriatric TIA’s, and that such an event will likely eventually take her to the happy hunting ground. If the final act is merciful, I’ll find her laying comfortably expired some morning on her soft, aromatic bed. Better still, maybe she’ll recover sufficiently to again accompany me in the field to run, jump, splash through black mud and flush birds to a flaming finale of sudden death by cardiac arrest from overstimulation and excitement.

We should all be so lucky. Few are.

Skinny Challenge

The challenge arrived last week in the form of a text message to the colleague I call Big Boiczyk, a young man who faces me daily from across our joined, rectangular Recorder desks.

“Hey, you’ll get a kick out of this one,” he chuckled. “It’s Skinny Williams. He’s says he’s ready to go goose hunting with the master. He still wants you to take him hunting.”

“Goose hunting? Tell him I stopped shooting geese after the last one I ate 40 years ago. I hunt pheasants these days, pretty-much exclusively now that woodcock and grouse have diminished so. If he wants to go pheasant hunting with me, great. I’ll take him. I could use a set of young legs in the field with me.”

A short pause ensued before the arrival of another text.

“He wants to know when the season opens.”

“Well, it depends. Woodcock opens next week. Pheasant season opens a little more than week later on Oct. 15. Tell him I avoid opening day. Too many hunters out on that first Saturday. Does he have a license? I don’t hunt with outlaws.”

Another short pause, a little fiddling with his cell phone, and Big Boiczyk comes right back at me.

“Yeah, he’s says he can do you one better than that. He has a license to carry.”

“Big deal,” I responded. “So do I. What’s he want? A shootout?”

So there you have it. A potential new hunting buddy with young eyes, fresh legs and plenty of personality. Perfect. My kind a fella.

Not a total surprise, the Frontier Regional School baseball coach had first broached the idea of hunting with me last spring while on the phone reporting a score. At the time, I didn’t know if the young man was serious. Now a follow-up. How about that? Superb! I’m always looking for companionship. I’ll show him the ropes, and rattle his cage every chance I get.

I must believe there’s good reason for him to reach out to me. After all, he’s coaching in my hometown of South Deerfield, where, even though I’ve lived elsewhere for the last 20 years, wild tales of my youth  endure. I can’t say I’m proud or ashamed of everything they talk and laugh about. But I’m sure he’s heard plenty. Remember, the Frontier athletic director is my baby brother Martin. So, take it to the bank: Skinny’s been egged on plenty, and heartily encouraged to take a little whirl through the alder swamp with the old man whose reputation precedes him in that neck of the woods.

It reminds me of a conversation I enjoyed a couple of years ago with the two Scott sisters one fine afternoon standing in their front-yard promontory point in Whately. Looking across the Mill River Watershed and Great Swamp to as fine a profile of the giant Sugarloaf beaver available, the younger sister, Heather, grinned and told me her late dad, “used to tell us stories about you.”

“Well,” I responded with a wry, maybe even slightly timid grin, “although I prefer to tell folks who don’t know me  that I’m a victim of small-town gossip, my friends know that if you multiply what you hear by five, you’re probably in the ballpark.”

“I like that,” she laughed out loud.

Oh well, so now this  new character named Chris “Skinny” Williams is jumping into the fray with me and my mother-son springer-spaniel gundogs: Lily, 12 a seasoned veteran with maybe one productive year left, and Chubby, a 5-year-old dynamo entering his prime. My buddy Cooker — a professional trainer, breeder and field-trialer — says with gleaming admiration that he’s never seen Chub-Chub tire in the field. He attributes the 52-pound animal’s endurance to what is known in his game as “a big pump,” which in layman’s terms means heart. No one who’s witnessed Chub-Chub scour a covert would disagree, and I see it daily, with or without a gun in hand. Nose-driven, Chub-Chub is a fine-tuned, high-performance machine with a total aim to please and cooperate. In Cooker’s world, they call him biddable, the opposite of unbidden, I suppose. I’m comfy  either way.

Having a rich baseball background and plenty of diamond yarns, I’m glad Skinny’s a hardball man. There happen to be many transferable skills between baseball and wing-shooting, many similarities between hitting a pitch and a flying bird. Both tasks require a plan, a check list, patience, precision and execution. Plus, never underestimate the value of experience and hunting familiar coverts where the shooter knows the flight tendencies and preferred  escape routes.

I have hunted with many trusted pals over the years — fellas like Fast Eddie, Big Stash, Ole Smitty, Young Count, Doc Van Boeckel, Tommie Valiton, Cooker and Killer — all of them highly capable and compatible, with an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, even without communication. Three of them are no longer with us, one by way of a tragic, youthful car accident, another by hateful disease, the other by sudden cardiac arrest in the Maine woods he so loved. They’re all gone but not forgotten, with many stories spontaneously there for the taking.

Who knows? Maybe Skinny the ballplayer will surprise me with his readiness for the wing-shooting challenge. Perhaps he’s proud, has visited the skeet and trap ranges to sharpen his skills and will step right up to the plate ready to perform. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about skeet and trap shooters it is that shooting-club or Sporting-Clays proficiency does not always translate into excellence in the field, where thorny tangles, tall tree lines, knee-deep mud, ditches, and high, dense alder screens can change the success rate dramatically. Have you even seen major-league superstars look like rank amateurs striking out on a breaking ball in the dirt or fouling back a meatball? Well, it happens to wing-shooters in the field, too, usually after they get leg-weary, stumble, get momentarily distracted and/or lose their concentration. Or a shooter can simply mess up the execution sequence with an awkward mount resulting from pressure to get off a quick shot before the flying bird disappears behind a dense, bushy screen.

I still remember where I learned that wing shots can indeed be made through dense cover. I was grouse and woodcock hunting in the Whately highlands with late Boston Herald outdoor scribe Dixie White in an old orchard tangled throughout with wild grape vines. Handling my springer, Pepper, not 10 yards from Dixie — who was carrying a gorgeous little European 20-guage side-by-side that likely cost more than the Jeep Cherokee I drove up Henhawk Trail — I heard a timberdoodle flush, mounted quickly and saw just a flash behind a tall, wide, grape-tangled apple tree. I didn’t shoot but Dixie did and, too my astonishment, Pepper promptly returned with a lean, limp male woodcock in his mouth.

“How’d you sneak one through that wall?” I asked Dixie, who was the same vintage as my father. “Myself, I wouldn’t even bother pulling the trigger on a shot like that.”

“Remember, all it takes is a pellet or two to take down woodcock and grouse,” he said with a told-you-so grin. “You’d be surprised how many pellets can get through a tangle like that.”

Lesson learned. Yes, seeing is believing. And since that day, I have seen many impossible targets come down dead, including larger pheasants that are tougher to bring down on such shots.

Hopefully, I won’t disappoint Skinny, given all the tall tales he’s likely heard. Maybe I’ll get the chance to mentor this spirited young man, who, by the way, I have never laid eyes on. My usual style is to go the low-pressure route, starting by quietly watching, evaluating and assessing before finally imparting friendly advice aimed at easily correctable flaws and improved success. Then again, maybe young Skinny has a thing or two to teach me about wing-shooting.

That, he’ll have to prove — kinda like Dixie’s incredible shot through the gnarly, grape-vine-entangled wild apple tree.

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.