April 26, 2018
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Despite hundreds of sightings, cougar’s status remains in doubt

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

Roddy Glover said he will never forget the day a decade ago he came face to face with the fabled ghost of the Maine woods, a predator that according to virtually all scientific accounts no longer existed in New England.

It was mid-September 2000 and Glover, then 39, was scouting out some easily accessible spots along railroad tracks in Monmouth where, with an injured foot, he could more easily bowhunt for deer.

Standing on an embankment above the tracks, Glover saw a large, tawny-colored animal strolling toward him in the mud beside the railroad ties, he said.

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“I thought, ‘That looks weird. It doesn’t look familiar,’” Glover, a lifelong hunter as well as a taxidermist, recalled recently. “It was friggin’ huge.”

But when the animal turned sideways, revealing its characteristically long tail, Glover said he realized with a shock what was headed his way: a mother mountain lion with its good-sized offspring in tow.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. “I just laid down … because I couldn’t run because of my foot. They started coming closer and closer, and they got within 50 yards of me when they turned and went into the woods.”

A biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife later would say in media reports that the tracks he documented at the scene were “the most solid piece of cougar evidence we’ve ever had.”

In the decade since, DIF&W has received scores of reports — and even some grainy photos — from people throughout Maine convinced they spotted a mountain lion crossing a road, stalking prey in a field or lounging in the sunny backyard like a gigantic house cat.

Reports of mountain lions — including one sighting near Greenville last month — have come in from all around the state in recent years. But officially at least, self-sustaining populations of wild cougars or mountain lions exist only in Maine’s history books.

“It’s a rare case — almost nonexistent — that we find evidence that it was a cougar,” said Wally Jakubas, who receives most cougar reports as head of DIF&W’s mammal division.

Reports every two weeks

The cougar is the fourth-largest feline in the world and one of the most widely dispersed lions with subpopulations historically found throughout much of North and South America.

The Eastern cougar — known variously as the mountain lion, puma, panther or catamount — once roamed from Canada to South Carolina and as far west as Michigan. Male cougars can weigh up to 200 pounds and are distinguished by their long, thick tails.

Viewed as a threat to humans and a pest to farmers, they were exterminated — supposedly — in the East by the early 1900s. The last documented mountain lion in Maine was killed near the Quebec border in 1938.

The Eastern mountain lion’s official designation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is “endangered”; however, the service considers the species extinct. The agency is now reviewing the Eastern cougar’s status in Maine and 20 other states and whether they are the same species as more common Western lions.

Whether or not cougars actually disappeared from Maine and other East Coast states, sightings of the “ghost cat” have been reported for generations and appear to be on the increase.

Cougars have been reported in suburban Virginia, coastal South Carolina and in the rolling foothills of Delaware. In New Jersey, just 50 miles from Manhattan and 25 miles from the bustling beaches and multimillion-dollar houses on the Jersey Shore, thousands of people have linked to a Facebook page called “The Mountain Lion in Manalapan” after numerous recent reports of a large mystery cat.

Today, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife averages about one cougar report every two weeks, although they often come in spurts as one sighting prompts other reports. Wildlife experts, hunters and DIF&W officials suspect that most people who believe they saw a lion never report.

“These animals were never abundant in Maine, and people have been thinking they’ve been seeing cougars for more than 100 years,” said Jakubas.

“Most of the time, I don’t think people are seeing cougars. On the other hand, I don’t want to discourage people from reporting sightings because look at other states. Reports of people releasing [captive] cougars into the wild are quite common.”

People who believe cougars still prowl the Maine woods consider that explanation yet another excuse from state wildlife officials who, they argue, choose to deny the cats’ existence to avoid having to manage another endangered species.

Likewise, some hunters discourage reporting any cougar sightings with the most extreme calling on fellow sportsmen to “shoot, shovel and shut up.” The underlying fear is that the presence of federally protected cougars could result in new restrictions on hunting, trapping or other activities.

Science versus sightings

Herein lies the root of the debate over mountain lions in Maine: Despite the hundreds of reported sightings (and likely many more unreported ones), there have been only two confirmed free-roaming mountain lions in the past 20 years. In addition to Glover’s lion in Monmouth, biologists found what was believed to be cougar hair in, of all places, Cape Elizabeth.

That’s a problem for wildlife agencies that depend on science.

Mountain lions may be elusive, but they are not invisible, according to Mark Dowling, whose nonprofit organization, The Cougar Network, has set the standard for confirming mountain lion sightings and tracking their gradual spread across the U.S.

“Without exception, anywhere you have mountain lions, they are going to be detected,” Dowling said. “And they are not going to be detected once or twice in a century. They are going to be detected on a regular basis.”

In western and midwestern states with cougar populations — even small ones — the cats regularly are struck by cars, treed by dogs or caught on the untold thousands of motion- or heat-triggered cameras that hunters use to find game.

The Cougar Network has documented lions establishing new populations in the Dakotas and individual lions’ presence farther east.

But with the exception of the historic population of an estimated 100 cougars in Florida — known there as Florida panthers — the network, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, insist the only mountain lions spotted in the East likely were raised in captivity and subsequently escaped or were released — illegally — by their owners.

“I don’t think we could be more skeptical of mountain lions in Maine than we are,” Dowling said.

Asked to explain the steady number of reports, Dowling replied: “A lot of it is wishful thinking, and a lot of it is mistaken identity.”

When evidence is found at the scene, it often points to the presence of deer or coyotes — both of which are similar in color to cougars — or to Maine’s other resident wild felines, the bobcat or the Canada lynx.

Midcoast ghost

Yet eyewitnesses up and down the East Coast insist they weren’t mistaken.

And for people such as Kip Yattaw of Port Clyde in midcoast Maine, the scientific community’s dismissal of so many reports is nothing short of infuriating.

Yattaw said he had his own cougar encounter last August while he was driving through Owls Head on his way into work early one morning.

At first, Yattaw thought the large, tan-colored animal in a field near the Owls Head Transportation Museum was either a deer or a coyote. As he got closer, eventually stopping and getting out of his car about 150 feet from the mystery beast, the outdoorsman and former Registered Maine Guide realized it was far too large to be a coyote.

When Yattaw saw the tail, which he estimated to be 3 to 4 feet in length, he said he realized he was staring at a large mountain lion.

“It’s something I never thought I’d see, and I have spent lots of my life in the woods,” he said.

Asked about suggestions that many reported cougars in Maine are likely bobcats, Yattaw scoffed and said that, as a former bobcat hunter, he knows the difference.

“That’s like comparing a sparrow to a bald eagle,” he said. Yattaw added that he is not the only witness; there have been reports of a big cat roaming the Owls Head area for six or seven years now, he said.

Midcoast Maine may seem like a far cry from ideal cougar country with its traffic, tourists and extensive shorefront development. Yet DIF&W’s Jakubas said the midcoast region accounts for the biggest chunk of alleged lion sightings.

“It’s not where you’d expect them. That is where the people are,” Jakubas said.

But Yattaw and others pointed out there are plenty of deer, rabbits and turkey for prey. And while not nearly as heavily forested as western or northern Maine, the inland midcoast still has plenty of dense woods.

Elusive in captivity

Officially at least, there are only seven mountain lions in Maine, all of them kept in captivity. Two of those reside at the Maine Wildlife Park run by DIF&W.

From just outside their caged enclosures on a recent, chilly November morning, it quickly became obvious why cougars are still known as “ghost cats” even in areas of the U.S. where their populations are strong.

The two mountain lions kept at the Gray facility were never wild and are the second-most popular attraction — after the moose — at a park that draws more than 100,000 visitors annually. Yet these cats are elusive even in captivity.

Both lions, a male and a female, warily peered out from their man-made caves for several minutes before venturing out for a better look at the visitors. Even then the female kept her distance, glaring from atop and often behind her rocky home.

Park Superintendent Curtis Johnson acknowledged that cougars are exceptionally shy or wary critters but pointed out that so are fishers, a species that lives throughout the state, yet many Mainers have never seen one.

“Despite that [elusiveness], you still have the forensic evidence that confirms [a fisher’s] presence,” such as tracks or scat, Johnson said. “And you just don’t have that with cougars.”

Maine’s other five “official” mountain lions are kept by private individuals who have obtained the necessary permits from DIF&W to keep such a critter. Wildlife officials know the actual number of captive cougars is likely much higher because some people own the cats illegally.

It is those illicit cougar keepers who DIF&W officials and biologists say are likely to blame for many of the credible sightings around the state. Officials suspect that some cougar owners release the cats after they become too large or too costly to keep because of their ravenous appetite for meat.

“If somebody sees a cougar and it turns out to be a cougar, the first thing that I would suspect is that it was captive and either escaped or was released,” Jakubas said.

But can a handful of released or escaped pet lions account for the hundreds of sightings throughout the state in recent decades? Cougar believers say definitely not.

One such ardent believer is Lorin Lecleire, a lifelong outdoorsman who makes a living guiding hunters, trappers and fishermen all over Maine.

Lecleire, who served as the Orono fire chief during his earlier career, said he has spotted several mountain lions over the years, often in the largely undeveloped commercial forests of Washington County. He and his wife saw their first cougar near Alligator Lake years ago, and he had his last encounter about four years ago, he said.

As someone who has spent much of his life in the woods and gets paid to help other hunters find wildlife — whether bear, moose or trout — Lecleire said there is “no question what we witnessed” was a mountain lion and not a bobcat or a lynx or a deer.

He also has collected stories from others.

“I can probably find within an hour six people who would put affidavits out who have watched the animals … and for more than just a split second,” Lecleire said.

Lecleire doesn’t doubt that there are a few formerly captive cougars roaming the Maine woods, but he also believes there is a small wild population or, at the least, individuals migrating through from Canada. He acknowledges the lack of hard proof but said it is only a matter of time.

“How often do you see, other than in the garbage, a black bear? Or a fisher? Or a pine marten? Or even a bobcat?” Lecleire said. “You rarely even see a roadkill of those animals.”

Likewise, David Woodbury is convinced the two critters he witnessed crossing roads near Lincoln were cougars. The incidents were 29 years apart, but it was enough for Woodbury to start collecting stories through his own website.

A registered guide who studied wildlife biology at the University of Maine, Woodbury said the cat he saw in 2003 was so long it nearly stretched across the entire lane of traffic, adding “you just can’t mistake that shape.”

Nowadays, he always carries a camera with him when he heads out guiding, fishing or simply tramping around the woods.

“It’s going to happen eventually,” Woodbury said of proof of cougars in Maine. “And all that is going to do is establish that all of us kooks aren’t kooks.”

Contrary to popular perception, DIF&W biologists do not laugh at people who report mountain lions, Jakubas said. Some biologists and game wardens within the department have reported seeing cougars. Jakubas himself said he has investigated sightings that left him convinced even without scientific proof.

“I’ve never seen a cougar, but I have gone out on cougar calls where I believe people did see a cougar,” he said. “I can’t explain how someone would make that mistake.”

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