Posts Tagged With: environment

Mountain lion in Connecticut: the re-wilding of eastern forests

Earlier this month, a mountain lion wandered through the campus of a private school for boys in Greenwich, Connecticut. Staff snapped a quick photograph through a window and, though a bit blurred, even skeptical experts agree it appears to be a mountain lion.

This photograph taken by school staff in Greenwich, Connecticut started talk of mountain lions in the region earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Greenwich Time/Greenwich Police Department

Mountain lions have not lived in significant numbers in the eastern states since at least the 1930s. Viewed by early Americans as a threat to domestic animals and competition for wild game, mountain lions were relentlessly hunted. In addition, their forested habitat became deforested for lumber supplies and farmland.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently reported the native subspecies, eastern mountain lion, or eastern cougar, extinct. Their study, released in March of this year, maintained that despite nearly six hundred reported sightings in northeastern states, the subspecies itself is unlikely to exist. The USFWS recommended removing the extirpated animal from the endangered species list.

Last Saturday, a woman in an SUV crashed into a mountain lion on a highway near Milford, Connecticut. There it was—evidence in the form of an actual animal body that mountain lion roam the forests of the Northeast. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) arrived on the scene and took the corpse for further study. They insist it is the same animal seen in Greenwich and will be comparing scat found at the previous site to the DNA of this animal. They will also be determining if the mountain lion had escaped from captivity by looking for signs of veterinary treatments and its relationship to the South American subspecies, which is normally the type kept as pets .

The DEP insists that the animals are the same solitary cat who must have escaped captivity, despite evidence to the contrary. The dead mountain lion had not been declawed or neutered. What’s more, on Sunday—the day after the dead animal was found—sightings continued around Greenwich. Even physical evidence in the form of cougar prints around a deer kill, did not seem to be swaying the experts.

A healthy skepticism?

Why do experts doubt the ability of locals to identify creatures in their own backyard? Some of their skepticism comes from mistaken identities. Bobcats and coyote are known to live in Connecticut and officials have found several reported sightings of mountain lions lead only to evidence of these other wild critters.

The nearest established populations of wild mountain lions are in Florida and Missouri, both different subspecies than that which was native to the Northeast. However, reported sightings have increased in the last decade in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. People have also seen mountain lions on U.S soil, east of the Mississippi in the states around the Great Lakes and the Midwest. Connecticut is now more forested than it has been in historic times, perhaps creating a welcoming environment for wandering species.

Mountain lions in Connecticut--a thing of the past? This photo by D.D. Burnham, "A mountain lion in the wild," depicts the western subspecies in Colorado.

The controversy has garnered several stories in local, as well as national papers, including the New York Times. Headlines have called the mountain lion both “beautiful,” “elusive,” and “mysterious.” Though many Connecticut residents are fearful, the image of this large, wild cat roaming only seventy miles from the sprawling Manhattan metropolis also inspires wonder.

The sublimity of re-wilding

Whether or not it is the original native species, or simply the western species migrating to new territory, in its juxtaposition of urban and wild, a mountain lion in Connecticut is a sublime sight.

The recent report of the USFWS begs the question: why are there so many reported sightings now? Is it an odd coincidence—or is there more to the story? While we await the results of the necropsy of the dead mountain lion, we are left to wonder if the news of eastern cougar extinction hit someone (or some group) so hard, they launched a plan to reintroduce a related subspecies, secretly, into Eastern forests. The other, more likely possibility, is that people who had previously seen mountain lions had been too unsure, or too afraid of being called crazy, to report their encounters.

There are several “ghost” species roaming (or not roaming) American forests. We saw an uproar just a few years ago when scientists in the swampy forests of the South reported seeing ivory-billed woodpeckers—a species long thought to be extinct. While some doubted the veracity of the sighting, many locals admitted to knowing the birds inhabited their forests. Those who had reported such information previously had been dismissed as ignorant of the very landscape in which they live.

Sightings of supposedly extinct animals have become a dialogue between outside “experts” and local peoples. Anthropologists have studied traditional environmental knowledge in remote corners of the globe. Now, such studies might be needed in America’s own wild, or in the case of Connecticut, re-wilded landscapes.


“Eastern Cougar,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

Mosi Secret, “Claims of Mountain Lions Roaming in Connecticut Drew Groans…Until Saturday,” New York Times

Barbara Heins and Ronald DeRosa, “DEP: Slain Mountain Lion Was Held in Captivity,” TollandPatch

MariAn Gail Brown, “DEP’s stance on mountain lions disquieting,” Connectictut Post

Connecticut Mountain Lion: Cougars of the Valley

Categories: Animals, Culture, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Mississippi River is out of joint”: fusing floods and poetry

There is no such thing as an ideal river in Nature,

But the Mississippi River is out of joint.

Still image from The River shows a familiar scene.

As the Mississippi River flows well beyond its usual course, I cannot help but think of the poetry of Pare Lorentz’s documentary film, The River (1938). When I first saw the film, I was mesmerized by its hypnotic narration. Today, I find the poignancy of its images remarkable. Rushing muddy water, houses half-covered in stagnant ponds, dogs on the roofs of homes, and refugees in small boats drifting along what were once dry streets are all images I’ve seen in recent newscasts about the 2011 flooding of the same river.

Pare Lorentz was a film critic when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hired him to oversee government films. After his portrayal of the Dust Bowl, The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), the Farm Security Administration commissioned a film that would highlight the improvements to the Mississippi River and its valley since the devastating 1927 flood after which they created a series of locks and dams, levees and spillways, and harnessed the power of the river to bring electricity to impoverished rural areas.

With this pragmatic mission, Lorentz instead made poetry:

Pare Lorentz' 1938 film, The River.

From as far East as New York,

Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies

Down from Minnesota, twenty five hundred miles,

The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf

The Mississippi River is a central environmental feature of the North American continent. Lorentz, inspired by a spiderweb-like map of the river and its tributaries, identifies every droplet of water that flows into its course:

The map that inspired Lorentz.

Down the Rock, the Illinois, and the Kankakee

The Allegheny, the Monongahela, Kanawha, and Muskingum;

Down the Miami, the Wabash, the Licking and the Green

The Cumberland, the Kentucky, and the Tennessee;

Down the Ouachita, the Wichita, the Red, and Yazoo.

Lorentz’s lyrical listing of ordinary rivers and streams rolls off the  tongue and builds a momentum akin to flowing water itself. Clips of such powerful white water that Lorentz filmed during the 1936 flood accompany the narration increasing in speed as they reach the main artery of the Mississippi.

Combining the environmental history of the Mississippi with its cultural past, The River captivates viewers through its juxtaposition of fact and emotion. Lorentz portrays the depletion of resources, the coming of steam power, and factory production with a mixture of patriotic pride and regret. Agriculture and deforestation depleted the valley’s topsoil and it washed easily away with the river. Harnessing its power for electricity made the river “work.” Even as Lorentz praises that mission, he mourns the continuing consequences of human activities along the river’s natural course:

1903 and 1907.

1913 and 1922.




We built a hundred cities and a

thousand towns –

But at what a cost!

  • Watch the full thirty minute film, The River, on the Internet Archive.
  • Read Lorentz’s Pulitzer Prize nominated script of The River at UVA’s American Studies Crossroads.
Categories: Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reverence and rowdiness: on trying to love Yellowstone

As I paddled into a cove along the shores of Lake Yellowstone’s West Thumb, the clouds that were threatening at a distance moved swiftly overhead. Thunder began to add its eerie sound to the silence of the landscape. Lightning could not be far behind.

Paddling the West Thumb of Lake Yellowstone. (Photo by author)

Seeing a rocky island beach, our tour leader motioned for us to paddle quickly to it. The last kayaker to shore literally jumped out of the water as a flash and crack of lightning hit the glassy lake. Here I was in what I had been told was the most culturally infected of our national parks—Yellowstone—having a most unusual encounter with nature’s unpredictability.

I had always thought of Yellowstone as the “safe” park. Our young guide seemed to think the same. While he saw the clouds approaching, he continued to paddle along though there were several beaches we could have landed on for safety. His inexperience continued to reveal itself over the course of the overnight paddle. He seemed to possess all the outdoor skills of a Disney Jungle Cruise guide. Did he view his job as backcountry guide with the same false sense of safety with which I approached the park?

While I was alarmed to find such a cavalier attitude towards nature with a permitted guide service, I was not at all surprised to find it near the park’s main attractions where my impression of the tourist-ed Yellowstone landscape was reinforced. As I drove along the scenic Grand Loop Road, I encountered a dozen cars pulled haphazardly to the side of the road. I fell in line to see the attraction (for I, too, was a tourist). There, in the dry grass that nearly camouflaged its russet fur, browsed a small grizzly bear.

Cars block the road as visitors spot an elk along the Grand Loop Road. (Photo by author)

At first glance, the grizzly seemed surreal. I had never before seen a bear in the wild, and had not expected my first encounter to be roadside. But before enjoyment could set in, a crew of baseball-capped men piled into the back of a red pickup truck rowdily yelled towards the grizzly, teasing it with fresh-caught fish from their stash of ice chests. Thankfully, the bear ignored the ruckus. I could not.

Old Faithful loyally erupts for a constant audience. (Photo by author)

I still find it difficult to separate the image of the bear from the foreground of noisy tourists. I’d like to see Yellowstone again, but I’m afraid to try. While its wilder parts promise serenity, crowds frame its icons. I have, however, found camaraderie with strangers in other national parks. At an overlook in the Badlands, a tattooed and bandanna-ed biker headed to Sturgis and I exchanged words of wonderment as the setting sun cast shadows over the crevices of the landscape. At the top of Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain, I marveled with fellow hikers at the view from fourteen thousand feet as we passed around a bag of celebratory trail mix.

But Yellowstone seemed to attract a different tourist—one who may or may not hold reverence for nature. People here treated nature as amusement, and behaved much like tourists at Disneyland. I don’t know whether it is the park or the people who visit it that make Yellowstone feel more amusement venue than wilderness. I enjoy Disneyland—just not with my nature.

This is the second installment in my series Wandering the National Parks in honor of National Parks Week, April 16 through 24.

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