KEENE — Mackenzie Yelin was out for her morning jog a few weeks ago when she noticed something in the woods by the road.
“I saw movement in the woods, and I thought at first it was a deer,” Yelin said. “I stopped because I always like to stop and see wildlife.”
Yelin soon realized what she was looking at was no deer.
“It definitely had a feline gait, and it definitely was bigger than my dog,” Yelin said. “I was like ‘What did I just see?’”
Yelin thinks she saw a mountain lion, or cougar, an animal that has not been confirmed to be in New Hampshire since the 1850s. The eastern mountain lion is believed to be extinct, with the last confirmed sighting in Maine in the 1930s.
Yelin isn’t the only person who’s been seeing big cats in New Hampshire, and veteran wildlife tracker Sue Morse said it is only a matter of time before cougars are established in the region.
“I totally believe the inevitability that they are coming,” Morse said.
Morse has tracked big cats throughout the county, and said western mountain lions have been migrating east for years. While New Hampshire’s Fish and Game does not have evidence of breeding pairs of mountain lions in New Hampshire, Morse said that will happen sooner or later.
“What we know is that there have been some animals that have made it as far east as New England,” Morse said.
New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Patrick Tate said there are no confirmed sightings of the animals, but it is not impossible for the animals to be in the region. He said a good quality photo that can be verified as having been taken in New Hampshire would provide Fish and Game with a starting point to investigate the sighting.
Breeding populations of western mountain lions have been found in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Louisiana and Minnesota, Morse said. Morse has been studying big predators for years, and her work helped prove jaguars were living in southern Arizona.
Yelin said she saw a mountain lion a few years ago running across Route 9 near Spofford. The big cat with the long tail bounded across the highway, startling her.
“It was so fast,” she said.
Yelin’s more recent sighting coincides with reported sightings of a mountain lion in Sunapee.
Sunapee Police Chief David Cahill said three people in his town have reported seeing big cats, much larger than a bobcat, with a long tail.
Morse said the male mountain lions, the toms, have been roaming east for some time, and it is likely people in New England are seeing them. The toms won’t stay, however, unless they find a female, Morse said.
“When you have females to come to new habitats, you will have males who will stay,” Morse said. “We don’t have any science-based evidence of a breeding population of cougars anywhere north of Florida in the east.”
Morse said the tom mountain lion killed in 2011 by a car in Connecticut came out from the western states, getting into Ontario in Canada and heading down through New York before going into Connecticut. Morse thinks he was searching for a mate.
“He didn’t stay anywhere because there was nothing happening,” Morse said.
That doesn’t mean a mountain lion-love connection won’t happen eventually. A female western mountain lion is known to have made it as far east as Tennessee.
There have been other New England sightings of large cats in recent years, according to Randy Osga, a Rhode Island man and member of a group of volunteers looking for mountain lions in New England.
“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Osga said.
In April 2011, a Rhode Island Division of Environmental Management police officer reported possible mountain lion sightings in South Kingston. People saw a large tan cat with a long tail near a location where a deer had been killed by what appeared to be a large predator, the report states.
Mountain lion DNA was recovered from a Petersham, Mass., close to the New Hampshire border, after a 2016 incident in which a horse was injured. Osga’s group of volunteers sent hair samples taken from the gate where the horse was injured to the DNA laboratory used by the state of Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife. It came back with a positive hit for the big cat.
Osga and his associates have been tracking the cats in Vermont and Massachusetts, and he said there have been well-documents sightings in Nova Scotia, Canada. Mountain lions are leery of people, and move fast.
“It is really hard to track a mountain lion,” Osga said.
Morse said wild animals have a way of surprising humans with their resilience. Moose and beaver both made dramatic resurgences.
“Animals are dynamic, animals are flexible, animals are seeking homes,” Morse said. “I really believe these animals are moving toward an eastern habitat.”
“Everything a cougar ever ate is here in plenty,” Morse said. “They only thing missing is the apex carnivore. Those animals will come back.”
Yelin is excited by the idea that mountain lions are maybe moving into her neighborhood.
“I say, welcome back, top predator,” Yelin said.