One critter in Maine that often draws speculation and discord is the mountain lion, or cougar … also known as the puma, jaguar or catamount.

This big cat is believed by many to have existed at one time in Maine, and by others to still exist here. It’s a topic hotly debated and contested.

This week at Unity College, a nationally recognized tracker, Susan Morse, will offer definitive data to show that cougars roam in the Northeast. She also will explain how in eastern North America scientists have documented the cougar’s presence. Morse will point to documented habitat in the Northeast that is suitable for cougars to recolonize.

Morse will speak at a seminar on the Unity campus that is open to the public at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“When I first started studying cougars in the 1980s in Arizona and Utah, there were no cougars east of the Rockies. The population in the Dakotas was a jumping-off point for cougars’ dispersal to the Midwest,” Morse said.

Since then, she said, there has been a steady migration of cougars from the Midwest to states as far east as Louisiana.

“It’s very exciting,” she said from her office in Jericho, Vt.

What’s not happening in the East, she said, is the dispersal of female cougars. Morse said it’s the occurrence of females that signifies a “breeding population.”

Female cougars tend to stay near their natal grounds, or where they were born, while males can roam thousands of miles.

One male cougar was documented through scat and DNA tests to have traveled from South Dakota to Canada and all the way east to upstate New York and Connecticut, where it was struck by a car, Morse said.

“Test of feces and hair showed that cat made that long journey, over 1,500 miles. Tests helped conclude it was a wild cougar, not a captive. There were numerous reports about it,” Morse said. “But there need to be signs of females closer to here before a population will start building.”

Morse has taught how to track cougars at land trusts in New Hampshire and Vermont through her nonprofit, Keeping Track. But so far her organization has not taught tracking training in Maine with the general public.

So there is much work to be done confirming whether there are cougars here.

“The animal doesn’t live in the habitat without (leaving) signs. I found a jaguar in Arizona within a half-hour of walking in the habitat where a remote picture (was taken). It’s cool. It really is,” Morse said.

At her training seminars, Morse teaches biologists and members of the public to look for scent marks left by cougars. First they need to identify the habitat where a cougar would travel, and then they need to understand the difference between a cougar paw print and that of a bear or a dog. Morse said dog and bear tracks are often mistaken for cougar tracks.

Then a tracker needs to be able to identify the scent mark of a cougar. Morse has spent decades documenting and tracking female cougars through their scent marks.

“To my knowledge the furthest east that there are females is in Eastern Manitoba,” Morse said. “There are occasional confirmed sightings of cougars in the Northeast, but they may be dispersing (males) unwilling to set up shop in any one habitat.”

Still, speculation as to the cougars’ place here will likely continue for years to come.

Even in “Early Maine Wildlife,” a catalog of early accounts of the wildlife that once thrived on the Maine landscape, authors William Krohn and Christopher Hoving assert: “Debates about the occurrences of mountain lions … dates back over a century.”

But Morse believes they were here, are here, and could be here again.

“At one time these cats dominated North America before white colonization, spreading coast to coast across the landscape from British Columbia to Patagonia,” Morse said. 

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: FlemingPph