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In my New Hampshire career I have written several, and seen at least 20, stories along the lines of “local person thinks they saw a mountain lion but there’s no actual evidence aside from wishful thinking and mistaken sightings, which is the same evidence we have for Bigfoot, alien abductions and the trickle-down theory of economics.”

Here’s a GG post from 2016 (“Certainty about mountain lions shows why humans argue so much“), and here’s one from 2018 and here’s one from 2019, in which an experienced wildlife biologist explains why he isn’t convinced by all the claims.

The Monitor had another such story this weekend, and as I speak it’s the best-read story on the website and has 10 times the usual interaction on the paper’s Facebook page, with 94 (and counting) comments. Most of those comments are variations of “I saw one!!!” with a sprinkling of “Fish and Game won’t admit it because <insert conspiracy theory here>” but happily there are a few sensible ones, such as the very first comment:

“1000’s of game cams throughout NH and not one pic – ever!!! I guess they are all vegetarians no has had any killed sheep, goats, cows or anything else.”

And that, of course, is the unassailable argument. If there was actually any population of mountain lions in New Hampshire or New England we’d have real evidence, just as we do for other very shy carnivores like the lynx. We don’t have any, so there aren’t any. (Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, you say? Wrong: it is very much evidence of absence when there is lots and lots and lots of effort to gather that evidence.)

The interesting question, however, is why so many people are certain they’ve seen mountain lions but few if any make the same claim for wolves, which are much closer (they’re in Quebec) and are just as fascinating and dangerous. Patrick Tate, the Fish & Game wildlife biologist who handles cougar claims, told me that he gets maybe 2-3 wolf reports a year – “some years there are zero” – as compared to scores, maybe hundreds, of cougar reports.

“To date (wolf) reports with pictures have been eastern coyote and a few wolf/dog hybrids (escaped domestic animals). Wolf/dog hybrids are legal pets in NH under Department of Agriculture. Keeping a wolf/dog hybrid requires certain measures are taken (see RSA 466-a).”

Maybe coyotes fill our scary-canine mental niche so there’s no need to imagine wolves, in a way that bobcats don’t fill the scary-feline niche?

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