HARTFORD, Conn. – A mountain lion killed on a Connecticut highway last month had apparently walked halfway across the country from South Dakota, according to Connecticut environmental officials who said Tuesday that the journey of roughly 2,000 miles was one of the longest ever recorded for a land mammal.
The animal originated in the Black Hills region of South Dakota and was tracked by DNA from its hair and droppings as it passed through Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2009 and 2010, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty said at a news conference.
Biologists estimate the size of the mountain lion population at about 100,000 in North America, mostly living in western regions and seldom traveling more than 100 miles. It was the first confirmed wild mountain lion in Connecticut in more than 100 years.
"It is a testament to the adaptability of the species that it can travel so far from its original home in South Dakota to Connecticut," Esty said.
The lean, 140-pound male was killed June 11 when it was hit by a sport utility vehicle at night on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in the New Haven suburb of Milford.
Authorities initially believed it was a captive animal that escaped, but tests showed that it was not neutered or declawed and it had no implanted microchips, which are commonly used in domestic animals.
Tests also determined it was likely the same one that had been seen earlier in Greenwich, Conn., a New York City suburb 30 miles away. The death was followed by a flurry of big cat sightings in the suburbs of Connecticut, but experts dismissed most of them as unreliable. Government experts say no native mountain lions are believed to live in Connecticut.
Although it was an anomaly, Esty said the presence of the wild mountain lion is a good sign of the ability of Connecticut's conserved land to sustain wildlife.
He said the discovery is "a strong symbol of what we had all hoped for who work in the conservation area, that wilderness areas and biological diversity can be preserved and protected."
Genetic testing showed the cat had the same genetic structure of the mountain lion population in South Dakota's Black Hills region. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in Missoula, Mont., matched the DNA with samples collected from a cat that was spotted in eastern Minnesota near Minneapolis and in northern Wisconsin from late 2009 through early 2010.
It was unclear what route the animal took to Connecticut. Biologists said it could have traveled south near urban areas or north through Canada.