Are there mountain lions in North Stonington?

North Stonington — An elusive creature stalks through the woods and fields in this rural town, according to some residents. It's rarely seen and the state doesn't acknowledge its existence, but several people here are fervent believers.

First Selectman Nicholas Mullane says he saw it dart across the road just after 8 a.m. one day this winter, a quick flash of fur that vanished into the trees.

The animal was approximately 100 pounds, with a lengthy tail and giant leap, and Mullane is sure of what he saw: a mountain lion.

The mountain lion, though, has been extinct in Connecticut for a century, according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In 2011, a stray mountain lion was struck by a car and killed in Milford, but other than that, the last sighting DEEP regards as credible was more than 100 years ago.

The Milford cat "was, we believe, an anomaly," said DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain. Genetic testing showed that that mountain lion originated from a population in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the DNA also matched an animal whose movements were tracked through Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2009 and 2010.

Regardless, Mullane and others are convinced that the big cats are not an anomaly in their part of the state.

Conservation Commission Chairman Bill Ricker has been collecting reports of mountain lion sightings for the past four or five years, and although he said he has never glimpsed one himself - he's a believer.

Ricker said he's up to approximately 15 sightings that he finds credible, all within the town of North Stonington. He vets people who tell him the stories, asking detailed questions to ascertain their confidence and make sure that they didn't actually see a bobcat or other animal.

Mountain lions, he said, are tawny-colored, the size of German shepherds and have a long tail that often curves at the end.

Ricker is passionate about the subject, explaining that as someone interested in wildlife conservation, he wants to make sure any animal that is living in the state is acknowledged and properly protected.

"I don't care whether it's a spotted newt or a mountain lion, it's important," he said.

While Schain said there has been "interesting, lively discussion" about the possibility of mountain lions in Connecticut for a few years, DEEP has not seen what they consider credible photographs, footprints or scat to confirm the cat's presence.

We "haven't seen anything that changes our mind," said Schain, noting that the animal is largely extinct on the Eastern seaboard, save for the Florida Everglades.

Tom Anderson, a spokesman for the Connecticut Audubon Society, agreed with the DEEP's assessment. While the mountain lion is an elusive animal, he would expect to see one hit by a car at some point if there is an established population, which he said is not an uncommon occurrence in the Everglades.

Schain said it is a possibility that people are seeing another stray lion, like the one hit in Milford, that has made a long trek from the west, but he does not believe there is an established breeding population in the area. Another possibility, he said, is that someone was trying to keep a mountain lion as a pet and it escaped.

Ricker flatly rejected that possibility.

"Absolutely not," he wrote in an email this week. Although he said that the reports he has been collecting are anecdotal, he believes that his sources have been seeing the cats for years - too many and too often to be another anomaly.

Schain said the DEEP would require a clear picture, pawprints or scat to examine as evidence before confirming a sighting.

There's just "not much interest from most folks to spend the time to go gather evidence," said Ricker. Also, he said, "the cats are so fast that one would have to have the camera up and ready for a (one in a million) chance of seeing one."

"You can't believe how fast they move," said Mullane, who was impressed with the creature whose paws only touched the road once when it bounded across. He said "no other animal I know" could jump like that.

The reports Ricker has gathered, he said, are clustered in the same area: near Foxwoods Resort Casino, in the Lake of Isles region, on the border with Voluntown or around Pachaug State Forest.

He talks of the cat with a tone of reverence, and the people whose reports he's gathered were equally impressed: a husband and wife who sat on their porch and watched one at the border of the woods for several minutes; a farmer who has caught glimpses over the span of 50 years; a previously skeptical biologist friend who saw one stalking a deer near Exit 91 on Interstate 95.

Mullane also seemed to be in awe of the creature, which he called a "very elusive animal."

Mountain lions, he said, are quiet and clever. He was shocked to see one crossing the road in the daylight, but believes they have been in the town for a long time: he recalls being called out to a friend's rototilled garden to look at enormous paw prints in the 1980s.

"You don't see them," said Mullane. "They see you."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

Twitter: @kccatalfamo

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