Biologist doubts Maine cougar sightings

Posted Nov. 19, 2010, at 6:28 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:37 p.m.

FARMINGTON, Maine – Warren Bryant of Jay and Al Stark of Phillips learned Wednesday night that they had something in common: Both believe they’ve seen tracks in Moscow made by an Eastern cougar, possibly the same one.

Bryant photographed the tracks three years ago and took copies to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mark McCullough to learn whether they were from a mountain lion.

McCullough of Orono was in town Wednesday night to present a program titled “The Eastern Cougar: Wild Cats or Wild Imagination” for the Western Maine Audubon Society at the University of Maine at Farmington.

After viewing Bryant’s photos, McCullough said the track looked more like that of a large dog because the hind-edge heel shape didn’t have the distinctive three even lobes that cougars have.

“Toes of cats are more rounded versus toes of dogs, which are more tear-dropped, and you’ll see a toenail,” McCullough said.

Stark told the biologist that his grandson said he saw a cougar chasing a deer near Robinson Pond in Moscow while hunting. Stark also said he had seen what he believes are cougar tracks in Phillips.

Bryant said he’s seen what appear to be big cat tracks three times in Moscow just west of the radar station, and that hunters have told him they’ve seen a cougar on Macomber Hill in Jay. Stark said he’s seen cougar tracks near Moxie Mountain in Caratunk.

McCullough advised both to contact Chuck Hulsey, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in Strong, and to visit the Cougar Network at www.cougarnetwork.org.

He also told them to return to the area after snowfall to search for tracks and to photograph a sequence of stride tracks beside measuring tape.

“In snow, you will see where their tail drags every once in a while,” McCullough said. “If its tracks show that it jumps 20 feet onto a log, that’s not a St. Bernard.”

McCullough’s slide show addressed cougar sightings by taking viewers through a history of the big cats in both North and South America from millions of years ago to the present.

“This is an animal that’s probably extinct, although we get numerous reports of cougars being seen all the time,” he said of what he called Unidentified Feline Objects, eliciting laughter.

In 1967, the Eastern cougar was one of the nation’s first species placed on the federal endangered species list.

McCullough said that in Colonial times, hunters exterminated cougars, along with their main prey, the white-tailed deer, to the point that cougars were rarely encountered in Maine during the 1800s.

“The last one in Maine was believed killed in 1938,” McCullough said. “Many early naturalists wrote that the Eastern cougar went extinct by the early 1900s.”

“The eradication of the cougar in the East continued through the Midwest and West,” he said.

“Between 1900 to 1970, over 200,000 cougars were killed by federal and private bounty hunters. Cougars were considered vermin and there was an unrestricted harvest of the animals.”

For a male cougar to exist, it must have 44 deer each year, whereas a female mountain lion with cubs must have 113, which is why they require a fairly dense population of deer, and plenty of space, McCullough said.

Males, he said, can range from 78 to 195 square miles and females from 8 to 400 square miles.

McCullough said there are two new populations of cougars in the Dakotas and evidence that some are dispersing throughout the country, but whether any have returned to Maine is a lively topic.

Offering three hypotheses for cougars existing in Maine, McCullough said they may not have been completely wiped out, or they are dispersing from known populations in the Midwest or Canada, or, most likely, they’re pets that have either escaped from captivity or have been released.

“The way we as scientists look at it is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” he said. “Ninety to 95 percent of reports of cougar sightings are the mistaken identification of other species of wildlife.”

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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