By: Richard Telford
On an early Saturday morning this past January, working at my desk that faces the eastern sunrise, my gaze was arrested by a sudden movement crossing the breaking sun. My desk window faces a break in the 18th century stonewall that encloses our 1770 northeastern Connecticut farmhouse on three sides; beyond this wall break is a massive brush pile that I have created as I’ve cut back overgrowth along the wall edges to increase light and decrease Lyme tick habitat. On this particular morning, I experienced a momentary disconnect as I gazed at the unusually stocky, bob-tailed housecat that had broken the line of the emerging sun, quickly realizing that it was, of course, no housecat but instead a bobcat (Lynx rufus). While bobcats are reasonably common in our area, they are crepuscular—largely active in the twilight hours—and thus difficult to sight. Further, like most mammalian predators at the upper trophic levels, they are discreet in their interactions with humans. In the twelve years I had lived in our farmhouse, I had never seen one prior to that morning.
I quickly called my wife, six-year-old daughter, and two-year-old son to the window, where we watched this particular specimen as it stood with its forelegs perched on an angular piece of granite half-buried in front of the brush pile, likely a stone toppled from the wall years earlier. Finally, the bobcat vanished into the woods east of our house, likely heading towards the series of stepping stone parcels that comprise the 324-acre Natchaug State Forest, which borders the 1765-acre James L. Goodwin State Forest, providing a significant habitat for bobcats as well as a sizeable eastern coyote population.
Seeing the bobcat at our window was for me a euphoric moment, similar to the moment I first saw a black bear (Ursus americanus) in the wild at close quarters fifteen years ago while through-hiking Shenandoah National Forest with my brother, bypassing the summer-crowded Appalachian Trail leg in favor a network of abandoned club trails dating to the 1930s. In both cases, each moment of wonder was tempered by concern, and it is this balance that, in my view, largely defines the interaction of the American public with regional predator populations. We long for wilderness, but we likewise crave safety, not just in the context of the natural world but in the whole of our lives. The former impulse can lead us to conserve, while the latter may prompt us to destroy. Effectively balancing these two desires is central to ensuring the safety of both predator species and their human observers.
In Shenandoah, my brother and I would go on to have eleven more close encounters with black bears which, like us, gravitated to moving water sources in the valleys during a period of severe drought. Each interaction filled us with wonder, but we also remained aware that an encounter gone bad could end terribly, both for us and the bear. One afternoon, crossing a brushed-choked summit with a narrow cut-through along its ridge, we became acutely aware of this. Pounded by rain that largely drowned out most other noise, we repeatedly heard the crushing of brush in feverish spurts off to our right. We continued to hear these irregular utterances until, perhaps ten yards off the trail, we saw the head of a large black bear rise like a periscope from the brush, its nose drawing in heavy drafts of air that no doubt included our scent. Perhaps a second or two later, a movement to our left drew our gaze, a cub that had treed itself in the skeletal remains of a long-dead conifer. Alarmed, we sprinted down the trail, our heavily-laden packs jangling loudly as we put distance between ourselves and the franticly searching sow bear. Though with less urgency, the need to balance the desire for wilderness with the desire for safety permeated our sighting of the bobcat less than fifteen feet from our house on that early January morning.
While a bobcat poses no significant threat to an adult human unless it is rabid, our three children—ages six, two, and one—fall well within the weight range of typical bobcat prey. A study published in The American Midland Naturalist documented the bobcat’s ability to take prey up to eight times its body weight, in that case fully grown white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Further, while bobcats in southern New England feed primarily on Eastern and New England cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus and Sylvilagus transitionalis), in winter they will vary their diet significantly when prey is less abundant. Pound for pound, they are fierce and capable predators. Thus, though our sighting of this particular bobcat filled us with wonder, it also made us pause in terms of managing the threat that it represents, albeit a remote one. While this may seem an overreaction to some, the lack of such caution among the general public, arguably, represents a more serious threat not just to humans but to upper-level predator species as well. One widely reported negative predator-human interaction has the capacity to significantly alter the public view of a predator species, even when that interaction stems primarily from poor decision-making at the human end—e.g. the classic bear-feeding dilemma at refuse dumps in national parks and other such sites. Thus, if we wish to preserve these species, we must shape our interactions with them with greater awareness.
During the first half of the twentieth century, upper-level predator species in Connecticut had largely been eliminated, but by the 1950s, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, western coyotes (Canis latrans) migrating eastward reached northwestern Connecticut, eventually dispersing statewide. Interestingly, the eastern coyote is considerably larger than its western counterpart, a likely product of interbreeding with Canadian gray wolves (Canis lupus) during migration. Additionally, a 1988 reintroduction program aimed at restoring Connecticut’s fisher cat (Martes pennant) population, decimated in the late nineteenth century by excessive logging, has been successful in establishing a robust enough population that the state initiated a limited trapping season in 2005. Red and gray foxes (Vulpes vulpes and Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are likewise abundant in Connecticut, and the black bear population has grown considerably over the past twenty years. From a practical point of view, the recovery of predator populations in Connecticut has lead to a significantly healthier food web, and a more vital and ecologically sound set of natural systems and organismal interactions.
From a spiritual point of view, there is an unquantifiable gratification that comes from living within a more complete ecosystem. At night, we frequently hear the howling of coyotes along with the calling of barred and great horned owls, and, though these sounds are ubiquitous in rural northeastern Connecticut, they never fail to evoke in us a sense of gratitude for the privilege of living beside these remnants of long ago wilderness, these creatures that have adapted to a shifting landscape that has been shaped and reshaped by anthropogenic change. Interestingly, one particular anthropogenic change, late nineteenth-century farm abandonment, has probably bolstered the aforementioned recovery of upper-level predator populations in Connecticut more than any other single factor. Northeastern Connecticut, for example, has returned to a 78% forested landscape, albeit a fragmented one in contrast to pre-Columbian days. Thus, this recovery will likely maintain an upward trajectory until the various populations approach their respective carrying capacities. This is cause both for celebration and caution, as noted earlier. We must eschew the historic, almost fanatical human impulse to extirpate predator populations, an impulse largely rooted in fear—a tall order when, as a society, we grow increasingly transfixed to electronic screens and increasingly disconnected from the natural world. The fear, whether it relates to physical or economic harm, must be mitigated through education, must be tempered by on-the ground realities. It cannot, however, be fully eliminated, nor should it be.
Last month, I walked with my daughter out to the brush pile outside my study window. That morning, we were looking for evidence of cottontail rabbits—likely introduced eastern cottontail rather than the declining, native New England cottontail—that we believe are occupying a former woodchuck (Marmota monax) burrow. Down the hill from the brush pile is an old farm dump that, based on its contents, appears to have been used by former occupants of our house from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s. I asked my daughter if she wanted to walk down to the dump, and her response surprised me. She told me she did not want to walk in woods where there might be foxes. I assured her that a fox would likely never attack her, especially with an adult present, and, by the time we reached the farm dump, she seemed to have shed her fear entirely.
Several weeks later, early in the morning, I saw through my study window what looked to be a breeding pair of red foxes. They trotted along the edge of the clearing south of the brush pile and quickly vanished. The night before, a light, late-season snow had covered the ground, and, when my daughter awoke, I told her what I had seen. When breakfast was done, I took her and our two-year-old son out to see if we could find the track trail. Though the snow was wet and already melting, we were able to distinguish several tracks, and my daughter quickly grew engrossed in the process. This prompted other observations as well: several small rodent tunnels in deep pockets of snow; a lone, half-opened milkweed pod with the gauzy filaments of its coma ruffling in the light breeze; a half-toppled apple tree, its sweet bark gnawed by a hungry white-tailed deer.
I aimed that morning to ease the sense of fear my daughter had expressed several weeks before and foster instead her already-strong sense of wonder. The latter already largely defines her view of the natural world, and it took little that day to draw it out, but it is tempered at times by the equally natural and logical fears of childhood. As noted above, we must mitigate but not shed those fears entirely in adulthood as we look to coexist with increasing upper-level predator populations. A healthy fear can guide us to interact with these populations with foresight and a sense responsibility for their continued survival; it encourages us, as well, to foster such interactions in our children. A healthy fear can guide us to take reasonable precautions: to secure our refuse properly, to protect small pets and livestock from undue exposure to predation, to manage compost piles and bird-feeding stations with awareness of the drawing effect they can have for upper-level predators. A healthy fear in this context perhaps translates to a deep respect for these extraordinary creatures, for their survival needs, for their instinctual drives developed over millennia, for their right to exist in the world, and for the way in which they enrich that world by their presence and diminish it with their absence.