Going Wild in Egremont
Bears, bobcats, and coywolves—oh, my!
Photo by Greg and Jan Ritchie
In the early hours of a Sunday morning, a prowler skulked outside the home of Caroline Wilson in South Egremont. Sleeping on the first floor, Caroline and her poodle, Bella, were unaware as the visitor sprang into action just ten feet away.
The prowler was strong enough to bend the steel frame of the bird feeder, stealthy enough to be unheard, and motivated enough to do a thorough job. By the time Caroline awoke, he was gone, leaving the smashed bird feeder a twisted hulk of metal.
“I know we have black bears, and I know better than to leave a feeder out,” Caroline admitted. “I guess Ursula”—her pet name for our ursine neighbors—“must have wanted a nibble.”
According to the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), over the last 35 years, the state’s black bear population has increased from 100 to 4,000. The growth may be a result of increasing forest habitat. In the 1800s, most of the state’s five million acres was cleared for agricultural use; today, with the decreasing number of small family farms, 80 percent is forested.
Despite Hollywood clichés, black bears are not generally dangerous to humans. They are omnivores that favor berries, roots, insects, fish, and small mammals. Since 1900, black bears have killed 61 people across North America, none in Massachusetts. For comparison, twice that number of people are murdered each year in Massachusetts alone.
But bears do have impressive teeth, claws the size of your average Swiss Army knife, and a cavalier attitude toward personal property. Leave No Trace, an organization that promotes the use of minimum-impact skills in the backcountry, stresses that “a fed bear is a dead bear.” Human food creates a dependence on an unnatural food source. Bears that become acclimated to handouts can become aggressive and may have to be shot.
Another sharp-toothed resident in the Berkshires is the coyote. Genetic testing suggests that Massachusetts coyotes may actually be a coyote-wolf hybrid. Summarizing his findings in the peer-reviewed journal, Northeastern Naturalist, biologist Jonathan May says, “The eastern Coyote should more appropriately be termed ‘Coywolf’ to reflect their hybrid origin.” Whatever you call them, the coyote population has exploded since the 1950s. Today, their yipping and howling can be heard from one end of the county to the other as they chatter about everything from finding fruits and berries to eating roadkill, garbage, and insects, to hunting snakes, rodents, rabbits, and domestic cats and dogs.
They also hunt small livestock. This spring, Peter Maggio, owner of Mayflower Farm in South Egremont, lost four lambs, a net value of about $300 a head, to a coyote. He keeps the lambs inside at night, but the wily coyote struck in the morning after they’d been let out to pasture.
Maggio has changed the grazing rotation to keep the sheep concentrated more closely together inside an electric fence. (It keeps the sheep in but may or may not deter the coyote.) And he is reluctantly thinking of getting a rifle. “We don’t have a problem with wildlife,” he says. “But we do have a problem with this one animal.”
Of all the wildlife native to the Berkshires, the feline family elicits the most fascination and controversy. Secretive and reclusive, bobcats make good, if mysterious neighbors. Predation on pets and small livestock is unusual, and attacks on humans are almost nonexistent. Instead, humans pose a threat to bobcats, which are classified as a furbearing species and subject to a trapping and hunting season.
Weighing between 15 and 40 pounds and stretching up to four feet long, the bobcat is sometimes confused with its cousin, the mountain lion—the Holy Grail of Berkshire wildlife sightings. Once common throughout New England, the mountain lion, or cougar, was hunted during the early 1800s, with the state’s last cougar being shot in Amherst in 1858.
The EEA states that today the bobcat is “the only wild cat now found in Massachusetts.” But ask almost any Berkshire resident about mountain lions and you’ll hear a story of a friend, or a friend of a friend, who saw one. According to the EEA, photographs submitted with reports have been either inconclusive or are misidentifications of bobcats, coyotes, and even housecats. But it’s not all smoke and hope. Two cases of cougars have been confirmed in Quabbin Reservoir in the center of Massachusetts.
“It’s possible that cougars are returning to the Northeast,” says Dr. Jennie Miller of Panthera, an international research organization dedicated to studying the 38 species of wild cats. “If reintroduction is occurring, it seems to be happening naturally as animals rove.”
If the elusive mountain lion has indeed returned, it is so far holding out—teasing us with innuendo and possibility. Like any icon, perhaps it is waiting for the perfect moment to make a grand entrance. In the meantime, we wait, suspended between romantic possibility and scientific certainty.
Keeping the “Wild” in Wildlife
- Do not put out food for any wild animals.
- Keep garbage cans securely closed.
- Birdfeeders should be hung out of the reach of bears.
- Keep your distance from wildlife.
- Do not run from bears or large cats. If they come toward you, stand your ground, form a group with others, and scare them away by shouting or waving a stick (or a bag).