The catamount is a ubiquitous symbol in Vermont. The feline name gives prowess to University of Vermont athletics, grandeur to an art center in St. Johnsbury and an earthiness to a special-edition maple wheat ale from a Vermont brewery.
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern mountain lion extinct, but that doesn’t stop Vermonters from calling in sightings of the animal every year.
Indeed, Doug Blodgett, a wildlife biologist who studied catamounts for 10 years with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, said the state gets between 45 and 55 reports of sightings annually.
And according to local pet groomer Carly Buswell, there’s been three in Milton this year. One employee and two customers told Buswell their cougar accounts.
Barbie Baker, Buswell’s assistant, has only lived here two years, but she and her lifelong Vermonter husband, Dallan, a former state trooper, swear it was a catamount that crossed their path just two weeks ago.
The Bakers were driving on West Milton Road in the early evening when a large, tawny creature stepped in front of their car.
“It just came across the road and went down the embankment,” Baker recalled. “It was huge. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Mark Trudo of Milton has a similar story. About a month ago, he was driving on Duffy Road around 10:30 at night when he saw a tall, stocky feline cross his truck’s path.
“I just saw it, you know? That’s what I saw with my own eyes. It was a pretty good-sized cat,” Trudo said.
Both Baker and Trudo said the beast had a long tail with a black tip, hallmark descriptors of a cougar; other Vermont cats, the bobcat and lynx, have short tails. Baker is sure cougars aren’t extinct, despite the report.
“Oh no, they are there,” she said.
The 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, written by Maine-based endangered species specialist Mark McCollough, caused quite a stir in Vermont, Blodgett said.
The five-year study said any cougars in Vermont are likely escaped captives or pets, kept illegally. The Vermont department, though unaffiliated with the report and with the federal office, upholds this view. Blodgett said there’s no evidence of a cougar population in Vermont.
“Even coyotes or foxes or bobcats, they leave signs, and we keep trying to come up with tangible field evidence [for mountain lions], and we haven’t been able to do that,” Blodgett said.
But in 1994, a scat sample taken in Craftsbury, about 50 miles east of Milton, confounded scientists.
The Vermont department sent the sample to a forensics lab in Oregon; results came back positive for puma. A subsequent analysis in California said canine, not feline. Both labs stood by their results, which Vermont considers inconclusive, Blodgett said.
The last known Vermont puma was shot and killed in Barnard in 1881. It’s now on display at the Vermont Historical Museum in Montpelier. The animal has been on Vermont’s endangered species list since 1972, the federal report says.
It goes on to say that alleged puma sightings are 90 to 95 percent false; people often confuse the animal with other wildlife.
However, despite the report, Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife office still investigates credible reports, under specific circumstances: If the report is current, has possible field evidence like scat or a paw print and if the weather hasn’t washed away that evidence.
Blodgett said meeting those standards is harder than one might think. The office often gets reports that are six months to two years old. Still, staff collects data, including when and where the animal was seen and the circumstances of the sighting.
Buswell, the Milton pet groomer, is dubious of the officials’ stance. She thinks the state is trying to cover up the cats’ existence so as to protect economic development. For example, she said, her grandparents saw a mother puma and two cubs near the industrial park, a prime site for building, last year.
That claim was new to Blodgett. He’s used to hearing about the state’s cover-ups, particularly in regard to scaring away tourists, not buildings.
“We really make no bones about saying we have 6,000 bears in the state, and that’s not really stopping [tourists] from coming,” he said.
Blodgett thinks the charges are ridiculous. He admits he’s among the many who would like to see mountain lions return to Vermont, but “as a scientist, I just need to see evidence of that,” he said.
Blodgett has studied mountain lions in Arizona and Wyoming, and signs of their populations are as commonplace as Vermont’s use of the catamount name. If Vermont had mountain lions, there would be frequent sightings with evidence – like roadkill, for one.
“We kill everything on those roads with our vehicles, from itty bitty mice to giant moose,” Blodgett said. But cougars? “We have yet to see one of those things end up on someone’s bumper.”
Last year in Connecticut, one did: An SUV killed a catamount in Milford just a few months after the federal report came out. Research showed it was a wild cat that had trekked from South Dakota.
Both the federal report and Blodgett acknowledge the catamount debate centers on wishful thinking and hope that humans didn’t truly eradicate the species.
“Your brain sort of fills in between the lines” when people sight a would-be puma, Blodgett said, noting that many “catamount aficionados” want to see them repopulate the Green Mountains.
“We have catamount beer, UVM Catamount this, catamount that,” Blodgett continued. “It’s a bit of a culture.”
But Baker isn’t buying that’s all there is to the story.
“I saw it with my own eyes,” she said. “They say seeing is believing.”