Mountain Lions in Our Midst?

by Elizabeth Folwell | Nature and Environment

In Adirondack Life‘s June 2016 issue, “Vanishing Acts” chronicles the disappearance of charismatic megafauna—like elk, puma, moose and wolf—from our woods. Wolves and mountain lions were systematically removed thanks to generous bounties paid by counties, while other animals were hunted for meat and fur. Despite extirpation, cougars do occasionally appear here, igniting old controversies and adding mystery to the wilds.

More than five years ago the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared that eastern pumas (Felis concolor) are extinct east of the Mississippi River except for remnant populations in Florida. In 2015 the big cats were removed from the endangered species list for this part of the country, meaning there are none left to be saved. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) clearly states there is no self-sustaining native population of mountain lions.

But Adirondackers do see cougars—or what they believe to be cougars, as this March encounter in Crown Point indicates. Cara Cowan’s trail cam photographed a long-tailed tawny feline slinking through her property, setting off a flurry of questions and investigations by wildlife experts from the DEC. The video is not good quality, the scale is hard to tell, but some observers were convinced the fuzzy frames captured a mountain lion. On further inspection, the DEC experts determined the animal in the video was the size of a house cat.

For the past few years Protect the Adirondacks has sponsored the Cougar Watch project that records credible sightings in the park  to build an accessible public database. There is advice on how to recognize this large cat, including track comparisons with native bobcats, and a form to share your information if you have seen a mountain lion. It’s important to record as much detail as possible, including where, when and what the animal was doing. In 2015, for example, there was a cluster of sightings between Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake.

In 2011 North Country Public Radio interviewed DEC wildlife biologist Ken Kogut about his cougar encounter. He had no question at all about the animal he saw step into the road and then leap across the opposite lane in one bound. Though a breeding population is gone, panthers may end up in the Adirondacks as former captive animals or they may trek here on their own, crossing an astonishing variety of terrain.

One of the most remarkable puma appearances happened in 2011, when a male appeared near Lake George for a few days. Later that year the same cat was hit by a car in Connecticut, and its autopsy found DNA that showed the creature began its journey in the Black Hills, 1,800 miles away. The brand-new book Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America, is  by William Stolzenburg, acclaimed author of Where the Wild Things Were.

Taxidermy specimens at local museums had been popular curiosities but concerns about the chemicals used to preserve the skins has meant panthers are nearly extirpated even from public display in the North Country. The Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, has a stuffed cougar in the Woods and Waters exhibit that once graced the mantel at Nehasane Great Camp, on Lake Lila. If you want to glimpse this predator inside the Blue Line, that may be your best bet.

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