Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

Belly up to the bar at any Finger Lakes watering hole on a Saturday night and ask this question: “Has anybody ever seen a cougar?” My money says you’ll get several positive responses and even more “No, but my buddy has!” answers. Plenty of people are convinced – and convincing – that they have seen a “big cat” and are more than willing to share the details of their sightings over a frosty mug of suds.

Is it the beer, or has the cougar really taken up residence in the Finger Lakes? Enough sightings have been reported that at least two organizations have been monitoring the accounts and the state’s own wildlife management agency has softened its stance somewhat on the existence of the big cats in New York.

At one time, Puma concolor, the cougar, was the most-widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from Canada to South America and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Although it roamed throughout New York during colonial times, the Eastern Cougar has been absent from the state since the 1890s. Officially, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) considers the cougar to be an extirpated species. But, DEC wildlife offices receive enough reports of animals that are believed to be cougars that many of the claims are investigated. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists it as an endangered species in New York, leaving the door open for possible cougar occupation from a federal perspective.

The cougar is known by many names, including catamount, mountain lion, panther and puma. It is the second-largest North American wildcat after the jaguar, with an average mature weight of 125 pounds. Adults stand 30 inches tall at the front shoulder and vary between 5 and 8 feet in length, which includes a thick, gracefully curved 30-inch tail. Males are larger than females.

Beginning in the late 1700s, cougars were intentionally and relentlessly hunted to the point of local and regional extermination. There was no tolerance for a large wildcat that could potentially prey upon domestic fowl, livestock and maybe even humans. By the mid-1800s, every state offered a bounty for each lion that was killed. Furthermore, human encroachment onto remaining cougar habitat drove remnant populations out of their historical ranges altogether. Today, except for a small population of panthers that inhabits the Florida Everglades, cougars are pretty much confined to the Rocky Mountain States and areas west of the Mississippi River. Or are they?

Bruce and Mary Anne Thon are a husband-and-wife team of investigators for the Eastern Puma Research Network, which is headquartered in Maysville, West Virginia. The Keuka Lake couple has co-authored a book entitled Ghost Cats of Central New York that chronicles more than two dozen accounts of individual big cat sightings in the Finger Lakes Region. The stories are intended to give readers a picture of why the researchers believe that the cougar is alive and reproducing in Central New York.

Scott Van Arsdale is a 25-year veteran and endangered species specialist with the DEC, working out of the Stamford office in Region 4. But when it comes to cougar investigations, he is apt to find himself heading off to wherever the action is. In his own article, published in the February 2008 issue of the New York State Conservationist magazine, he makes the point that – especially in cases of clustered sightings – perhaps the DEC was being too hasty in dismissing cougar reports. He decided to start a log of cougar sightings, which after its first year contained 44 reports in east-central New York alone. His list of cougar sightings now tops 100 reports annually.

According to its website, www.easterncougarnet.org, The Cougar Network, based in Austin, Texas, is a research organization that has documented a modest number of confirmations of cougar sightings from the northeastern United States, including one in New York’s Adirondack Mountains in 1993. But it tempers those claims with this statement: “Unlike the Prairie and Midwest regions where cougars appear to be filtering in from known western populations, the origin of cougars in the Northeast is uncertain. Cougar experts and state wildlife agencies believe that they are all likely intentional releases or escapees.”

That’s a statement that Van Arsdale agrees with. He says, “While it’s certainly possible to see a cougar in New York – nothing’s impossible – there is no proof that a breeding cougar population exists anywhere in the state. Any sighting is probably a pet cat that was released because it became too much to handle or is one that escaped from captivity.” That position frustrates the Thons. Mary Anne calls it “the DEC company line” and asks, “Why is the state so adamant that wild cougars couldn’t exist here when so many people are seeing them?”

That is precisely what challenges Van Arsdale the most. “People are seeing something. If it’s not a cougar, what is it?” He is determined to investigate any cougar sighting with an open mind in order to either prove or disprove its authenticity. “If it’s a case of mistaken identity, then I want to know that, too.”

It’s the lack of physical evidence that’s the most perplexing. In South Dakota, with a known annual population that ranges between 220 and 280 mountain lions, road kill statistics look like this: 40 in 2005; 56 in 2006; and 67 in 2007. New York has never recorded a single road-killed cougar despite annual sighting reports that number in the hundreds – and this state has more highways. Van Arsdale makes it a point to personally visit sites where there is a good chance of finding physical evidence to prove whether the animal seen was, in fact, a cougar. He has yet to find any physical evidence such as hair, tracks, or droppings that would prove the presence of a single wild cougar.

Logistics come into play as well. Fifty percent of regional big cat reports claim that the normally tan-colored animal was black. If a verifiable cougar sighting is so rare, then seeing a black, or melanistic color phase, would be even rarer yet. Mary Anne Thon notes that if a small cougar population contained even a single black animal, then that genetic trait could be easily reproduced.

During the 1970s, when I was director of fish and wildlife management at Whitney Park near Long Lake in the Adirondacks, three staff members who carpooled together came into my office early one snowy morning to exclaim that they had just seen a cougar. All three were veteran woodsmen and were familiar with Adirondack flora and fauna. To a man, they claimed to have seen a 100-pound cat with a very long tail bound across the road in front of them and they stopped to watch as it headed up an unplowed logging road. I grabbed a camera, went to the scene, and took a photo.

Those tracks measured 4 inches across with a walking stride that was 24 inches between prints. The hind feet stepped precisely into the tracks made by the forefeet, giving the appearance of a two-legged animal, a definite cat-like gait. More curious are the drag marks in the snow between strides, which could have been made by a long tail. I invited Dr. Rainer Brocke, then professor of biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, to examine the tracks. It was his opinion that they were made by a very large bobcat, and he didn’t account for the suspicious drag marks.

Needless to say, the Whitney employees were indignant over Dr. Brocke’s assessment. In their defense, I will say that even a very large bobcat stands no more than 24 inches tall at the shoulder; is just over 3 feet in length; weighs under 40 pounds; has a spotted coat and a short stubby tail; and makes a footprint smaller than 3 inches across. However, since I did not see the animal that made the tracks, I can only speculate on what made them. And while I have the highest regard for Dr. Brocke’s expertise, I also have faith in the credibility of the three men – a tough position for me to be in, indeed.

The existence of cougars in the Finger Lakes Region, or anywhere in the state for that matter, can be an emotionally charged topic. In researching material for this article, I did so with an open mind. And I tried to write it without bias, respecting the opinions of everyone I interviewed. But during that research, I discovered some things that muddy the waters of credibility. Fabrications, hoaxes and Internet/e-mail rumors run rampant. Photos purporting to show a cougar in someone’s backyard or stalking a deer in the north 40 were proven to have been taken out West. None of the photos that I have seen are conclusive.

One popular rumor says that the DEC has been releasing cougars to control deer populations, even naming fictitious personnel who participated in the release. Other accounts describe cougars that were seen with ear tags or neck collars in an attempt to link purported sightings to the state. On its website, www.dec.ny.gov, the DEC categorically denies these allegations with this statement: “This is not true. The DEC has never released cougars, despite what you may hear to the contrary.” It also states in part, “To date, no hard evidence has been produced that would prove the existence of cougars living and reproducing in the wild in New York ... no tracks, scat, dead cougars, photos, videos or audio tapes. No wild cougar carcasses have been documented in New York since 1894.”

Is it possible to see a cougar in New York? In Scott Van Arsdale’s words, “nothing’s impossible.” The fact that a pair of 4-foot alligators turned up in a marsh in Wayland a few years back proves that. Could there be a viable cougar population in the Finger Lakes Region? The official answer is no, but that same answer applied to moose in the Adirondacks 25 years ago and to coyotes long before that.

According to The Cougar Network, which seems to speak with authority, “There are a modest number of confirmations in the Northeast. Vermont, Maine, New Brunswick and Quebec wildlife personnel are taking credible cougar reports very seriously. The origin of cougars found in this area is still a mystery, since the Northeast is very distant from known populations in the West and Midwest. There is no evidence of a breeding population, and most cougar experts believe that any animals in this region are almost certainly of captive origin. The presence of South American genotypes in many of the DNA-positive hair samples indicates that at least some of these animals are of captive origin. The occurrence of some of these samples in seemingly unsuitable Boreal habitat also raises questions.”

So the question remains, are there cougars in the Finger Lakes Region? I guess the answer depends on whom you ask.

by John Adamski

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