Biologists review cougar sightings in Maine|Richard_F||03/21/07 at 12:24:06|richard_f|xx|0||Biologists review cougar sightings in Maine

March 14, 2007

Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine Federal biologists are examining decades of witness reports and scientific research as they try to determine once and for all if eastern mountain lions thought to be extinct are actually living in Maine.

Mountain lions, also known as cougars or panthers, are believed to be extinct east of the Mississippi River, from Maine to South Carolina. But biologists receive at least a dozen reports each year of sightings in southern Maine alone.

"We're willing to listen to the evidence and look at it objectively," said Mark McCollough, a federal biologist based in Old Town who is coordinating the review.

Mountain lions were wiped out in the eastern United States in the 1800s. They were shot by early settlers who also thinned the ranks of their prey: elk, bison and deer. Farms, meanwhile, cut into the big cats' natural habitat.

A mountain lion killed on the Maine-Quebec border in 1938 is officially considered the last indisputable proof of the cat's presence here.

Scott Lindsay, a regional biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said he and other biologists take the reports seriously and check out reliable ones by looking for tracks, scat or tufts of hair. Once, they even set up cameras after getting multiple reports in the Hampden area.

A couple of Maine sightings an adult cougar in Cape Elizabeth and an adult and a cub in Monmouth are considered the state's most credible cougar encounters.

In Cape Elizabeth, wildlife biologists found tufts of hair that were consistent with a mountain lion's. In Monmouth, wildlife biologists found tracks that belonged to a cat and said it was too large to be either a lynx or bobcat.

Such sightings are so rare that biologists say those individual cougars could have been captive animals, or pets, that escaped or were released.

"The vast majority of these, for sure, are simply mistakes," Lindsay said. "I'm very skeptical that we could have any wild population here."

A resident population, even a small one, would leave evidence such as carcasses, said Mark Dowling, a director of Cougar Network, a nonprofit research organization based in Massachusetts.

Midwestern states still report mountain lions being hit by cars, he said. State biologists in the 21 Eastern states, as well as federal experts, will compile and review sightings records.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act requires periodic reviews, and one is long overdue for the eastern cougar, McCollough said.

In addition to assessing the presence of mountain lions, the review will focus on scientific research that suggests the eastern mountain lion is not a separate species from the more abundant western mountain lions.

That finding could be used as an argument to take the eastern mountain lion off the federal endangered list without even settling the question of an eastern population.