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Cougars extinct in East? No way, say those who claim sightings

Department of Energy and Environmental Protection

This June 2011 photo by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection shows a worker examining a dead mountain lion, or cougar, at the Sessions Woods Wildlife Center in Burlington, Conn. Tests determined that the cat, which was struck by a car, had traveled all the way from South Dakota.

Cougar sightings persist in the East nearly a year after the big predators were declared extinct in the region, a determination that some don't believe. Others want to make cougars' presence a big reality.

Just this month Gary Sanderson, sports editor at the Greenfield, Mass.-based Recorder newspaper, reported cougar sightings on a farm near the Vermont border, by an Amtrak engineer who claimed his train's video captured images of the creatures near Leverett, and from readers in the region who claim to have pictures of cougars.


"I've been besieged" with sightings ever since writing a column 10 years ago about hunting with a trapper who became a believer in cougars' presence after finding a footprint way too large to be a bobcat in Conway, along the Deerfield River, Sanderson told msnbc.com.

Sanderson said he has since written 50 columns devoted to cougar sightings and has been told by wildlife officials he was irresponsible to promote the notion of their presence.

With rare exception, there is no credible evidence of cougars living in the wild east of the Mississippi River, government and private researchers told msnbc.com.

In Connecticut this week, a CBS radio report and a Greenwich Time newspaper story both cited the growth of cougar sightings since last spring. That's when a cougar first spotted in Greenwich on June 5 was killed by a car six days later in nearby Milford. NBC Connecticut reported at the time that scientists studying the 140-pound animal's DNA concluded the cougar had wandered about 1,800 miles east, all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota through Minnesota and Wisconsin before finding its way to Greenwich, about 70 miles outside New York City.

Even though he is a state away, Sanderson said, "I felt vindicated" when the news emerged about the cougar in Milford. "I didn't think they would admit that it was wild."

A Connecticut group called Cougars of the Valley has an online petition with about 250 signatures asking the state General Assembly to hold a hearing on cougars, also known as mountain lions, pumas and panthers. The group's website also hosts a map of Connecticut cougar sightings and comments from readers claiming authorities disparaged their reports about seeing cougars.

No evidence?
Mark McCollough, an endangered species specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Orono, Maine, field office, was the lead scientist in the agency's study declaring the Eastern cougar extinct. (See full study report here.)

McCollough told msnbc.com that there is no scientific evidence that Eastern cougars have somehow survived 150 years after being driven from the region. The last known real Eastern cougar was shot dead in 1938 in Maine, he said.

"That's not to say they don’t show up from time to time," McCollough said of cougars, but most reports of sightings are misidentfications, such as coyotes or bobcats, which are about one-fourth the size of cougars.

Officials have documented 110 cougars loose in the Eastern United States and Canada since 1900, he said. They come from two main sources:

  • Escaped pets: At least 1,000 cougars are known to be held in captivity in the East, he said, and many that have turned up loose have been genetically traced to South American ancestry, indicating they were part of the exotic pet trade. "They didn’t walk here," McCollough said.
  • Dispersers: Like the wandering cougar killed in Connecticut, some head east from the West and north from Florida, home to about 150 panthers. Cougars regularly show up on trail cameras set up privately across the country, McCollough said, but they're not on cameras in the East.

One cougar from Florida, where about 150 panthers live in the wild, was killed in Georgia in 2008. That same year, police shot a cougar that wandered into Chicago's North Side.

But there is no scientific evidence, no scat (droppings), no confirmed sightings that cougars are establishing homes and breeding east of the Mississippi and north of Florida, McCollough said.

Courtesy of The Cougar Network

Green: established populations
Blue = Class I Confirmation
Red = Class II Confirmation

A map by The Cougar Network, a non-profit research group, shows only a few confirmed sightings of cougars in the East since 1990.

"We just don't take those kinds of sightings seriously anymore," said Mark Dowling, a leader of the network. Pictures turn out to be house cats or even golden retrievers.

Cougars couldn't go undetected, he said. "They betray their presence readily," he said, by becoming road kill or chasing people's pets.

The Midwest is seeing a resurgence, he said, including new populations in South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska. Individual dispersing animals have been seen in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Louisiana.

Christopher Spatz, a southern New York resident who is president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, told msnbc.com that wandering cougars are young males looking for females and needing to get away from their fathers' territories before their fathers kill them.

"Young cats out on their own are troublemakers," said Spatz, an advocate for reintroducing cougars into the wilds of the East.

"We need them everywhere. Big predators help regulate ecosystems,"Spatz said.

After wolves were reintroduced at Yellowstone National Park in 1995, elk stopped eating cottonwoods and aspens, Spatz said. Vegetation came back, and biodiversity, including beavers, birds and fish, expanded.

Without cougars and other predators, there is an overabundance of whitetail deer in the East, resulting in lack of understory.

"Cougars' presence would change the way deer browse," Spatz said. "They would keep moving; you would see regeneration of your understory."

Cougars are rarely a threat to people, pets and livestock, he said. California, where there are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 cougars and no hunting allowed, proves "we can coexist."

McCollough, the wildlife biologist, and Dowling, from the Cougar Network, which doesn't take a stand on repopulation, said chances of recolonization efforts in the East are remote, as people likely won't want large predators living near them.

Cougars, which can leap 30 feet and reach speeds of 50 mph, are carnivores whose usual diet consists mainly of deer, elk, turkey rabbits porcupine, coyote and other small mammals, according to The Cougar Fund, a non-profit trying to protect cougars. But the animals do prey on people, pets and livestock. Since 1890, "only 20 people" have been killed by cougar attacks, says the group, which also offers tips on how to fight off cougars and guidelines to keep children and pets safe. Several non-fatal mauling attacks on people are reported yearly. 

'They are here'
But one cougar advocate, Bill Betty of Matunuck, R.I., said people in the Northeast already coexist with cougars, because, he said, they are present and breeding.

"Every state in the East will eventually acknowledge they are here," Betty told msnbc.com. He said he has had 14 daytime encounters as close as 10 feet with cougars -- and nine family members have had 30 encounters.

"I've chased mountain lions away from kids," he said.

Betty lectures all over the country about mountain lions and has a 90-minute slideshow and other show-and-tell items such as a skull, scat samples and photos. He said he knows what a cougar looks like.

At a lecture in Somers, Conn., he said, 37 people raised their hands when asked if they'd seen a cougar.

"They are here," he said. "Those who say they are not are lying."

"Mature, responsible adults and schoolchildren can tell the difference between a cougar and a big yellow dog," he said.

Officials say they still don't believe Betty and that he does not use scientific data in his presentations, a charge he rejects.

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