There are mountain lions in Maine, many of the state’s residents swear.
Wildlife biologist Mark McCollough, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Orono, doesn’t debate the fact.
But as the person who helped draft the federal status review on the eastern cougar, published in 2011, he will say there’s not an existing population of breeding cats here in Maine.
“We could not find any evidence that they’re still here and breeding,” McCollough said. “But animals still show up. So the next question is, where do the animals come from if they still show up in eastern North America from time to time?
McCollough’s assessment: The cougars — also called mountain lions, pumas and catamounts — that end up in Maine either are of “captive origin” or are cats that walked here from western states in search of territory and a mate.
Still, there are more mountain lion sightings — unconfirmed in most cases — than you might expect in a state where no breeding pairs are thought to exist.
Earlier this week, a man from North Waldoboro shared trail camera photos of an animal he said he thought was a mountain lion. At roughly the same time, a Scarborough woman posted photos she thought showed a bobcat. Others saw the photos and vehemently disagreed.
After those photos were published, the Internet buzzed with activity as readers told their own stories — or expressed their distrust in biologists whom they say don’t want to admit the truth.
“Wildlife biologist says it’s a bobcat? Get me some of what he’s smoking,” one online commenter wrote after looking at the Scarborough woman’s photo.
Another reported he’d seen a mountain lion in the town of Bowdoinham some 23 years ago.
“I 100 percent believe what this lady [saw] was a mountain lion,” he wrote. “I don’t know why officials deny that possibility time and time again.”
Another reader disputed the conclusion of another biologist cited in the story.
“The muscle structure, and gait, is different than a bob[cat],” he wrote. “Coloration is off, head does not show tufts of hair. I know people do not want to admit that the puma, or mountain lion, is here.”
Another reader said she saw a mountain lion in Nobleboro about 15 years ago. Like many others with sightings of their own, she’s certain of what she saw.
“A lot of cars had pulled over to watch it,” she wrote. “This beautiful creature cleared Route 1 in two bounds. No mistaking what she was.”
McCollough, who started his status review of the eastern cougar with an open mind, admits he shared at least one similarity with people who say they’ve seen one.
“I approached it as objectively as I could,” he said. “But I wanted there to be cougars.”
Cougars in history
McCollough explained cougars once thrived in the eastern United States. Here in Maine, there are plenty of confirmed reports of the cats existing. Thoreau wrote about them, and sightings were fairly common.
The population of cougars declined rapidly, however, when land was cleared and their main source of food — the white-tailed deer — was nearly extirpated in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the late 1800s.
“There was market hunting [of deer], and there was very little forest left [in those states],” McCollough said.
There was plenty of forest left in Maine, but McCollough said the decline of the cougar population also was precipitous.
“What many believe to be the very last eastern cougar was killed in Maine in 1938,” he said.
Still, biologists continue to investigate possible sightings.
“The question is, what are people seeing?” McCollough said. “I’ve already said that there could be some cougars around, and some of what people see are definitely cougars. As a wildlife biologist you can never say never, and that cougar that marched out all the way from South Dakota and ended up getting killed in Connecticut [in 2011] is a great lesson to any wildlife biologist: You do really need to listen to these people [who say they’ve seen a cougar].”
Still, in many cases, there’s plenty of room for doubt, as McCollough has learned.
Scientists need proof
McCollough said that when he was preparing the federal status review, he tried to get a better handle on scientific phenomena that might affect eyewitness accounts.
“There’s sort of a phenomenon where people get a fleeting glimpse of an animal or maybe a trail camera picture, and there’s a psychological element [that plays a role in them misidentifying characteristics]” McCullough said.
McCollough said researchers have discovered humans are not particularly adept at recording that kind of information.
“And there’s another line of science that’s called ‘visual closure,’” McCollough said. “Our brains, it turns out, when we see an incomplete image want to fill in the blank spaces and not fill them in very accurately.”
That’s why, McCollough explains, as much as 10 percent of the “cougar” sightings in the eastern U.S. come from people who say they have seen a black panther.
“There’s no scientific evidence that there ever was a black panther that lived in eastern North America,” McCollough said. “Or that there was a color phase of the eastern cougar that was black.”