Outdoors: Game Commission to track mountain lion sighting amind flood of reports

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Associated Press
Two mountain lion cubs were shown at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center in French Creek, W.Va., in May 2001.
Click photo for larger image.

The accomplished outdoorsman stood at the ammunition counter at Woodlands World in Uniontown and told his story. He is not the kind of man who brags about his outdoor exploits. He has donated many hours to conservation work and, as a skilled fly fisherman, is a keen observer of the natural world.

He said he had been hunting deer in a northern county, many years ago, and had sat down on a log near a beaver dam to rest.

"That's when I saw it. It jumped up on the beaver dam and sat there on its haunches. It was brown," he said, "but I knew it couldn't be a deer. After a while it jumped off the dam and loped toward me. It's tail was this long."

As he spoke, he stretched out his arms to a span of three feet.

"When it finally winded me or saw me, it wheeled around on its hind feet and disappeared into a dense stand of pine, the kind the CCC camps planted back in the 1930c.

"I know what I saw, and I saw a mountain lion."

Later, pumping gas for the trip home he encountered the local game protector (now known as wildlife conservation officers. "I told him what I'd seen but he gave me no respect," the man said. "I've never felt right about that."

Credible outdoor people in his situation may get that missing respect from the Pennsylvania Game Commission in the future. The agency announced recently that it would start a formal system for keeping track of mountain lion reports. Lion sightings have originated from all parts of the state and have become more frequent than ever this year.

"This year, more than at any time I can recall, there has been an ungodly amount of mountain lion sightings," wildlife management bureau director Cal DuBrock told game commissioners at the agency's meeting last month.

According to the Harrisburg Patriot-News the new system will collect information in a uniform way from everyone reporting a sighting.

"We're not looking for more accounts. We are looking for more credible accounts," DuBrock said.

Mountain lions, also known as cougars, panthers and pumas, are native to Pennsylvania but are believed to have become extinct in the state by early in the 20th century. Originally, cougars had the widest range of any mammal in the western hemisphere, ranging from northern Canada, throughout the United States and Mexico, all the way to Tierra del Fuego at South America's southern tip. Across that expanse they exploited a wide range of habitats -- forest, desert, grassland and swamp.

Pennsylvania isn't alone in its extermination of native lions. With the exception of one remnant population in southern Florida, the cats were wiped out throughout the eastern and central United States. Healthy populations remain in the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Panthers prey on a wide range of small mammals and birds but deer are their favorite quarry. The resurgence of deer herds, including near urban centers, is one of the reasons some biologists believe the mountain lion could be rebounding across its old haunts.

In August 2002, a car struck and killed a mountain lion near fragmented forest habitat in central Iowa and wildlife officials believe there may now be a dozen or more lions living in that state.

Some farmers and deer hunters accused Iowa's Department of Natural Resources of importing lions to control deer herds. But Ron Andrews, a furbearer resource specialist with the Iowa DNR denied such a move.

"We did not, we have not and we will not release mountain lions in Iowa," Andrews wrote in an official statement.

Pennsylvania Game Commission officials remain skeptical about the presence of wild, reproducing lions in the Keystone State, often suggesting that escaped captive cougars are the source of credible reports here. But the Eastern Puma Research Network in Maysville, W.Va., which investigates cougar reports east of the Rockies, has logged more than 1,400 sightings in Pennsylvania, more than any other eastern state and far more than the known number of captive big cats.

Because of extensive forests, rugged terrain and abundant deer, the Eastern Puma Research Network considers mountainous sections of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and western Maryland to be the most likely location for an eastern cougar rebound.

Compared to intensively farmed Iowa, the region would appear ideal for the elusive species.

"The fact that species like mountain lions, bears and wolves can show up here in Iowa is pretty significant," said James Dinsmore, an animal ecology professor at Iowa State University. "If these species can come back into Iowa and find a way to survive here, they ought to be able to survive almost anyplace in North America."



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