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Volume 29
Number 4
April 22 - May 5, 2016
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April 19, 2008

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Big cat in Cape Elizabeth? Wildlife biologist doubts cougar’s return to area

By Elizabeth Brogan

Cougar, mountain lion, panther, puma, painter, catamount, and ghost cat are some of the names given to Puma concolor couguar. By any name, wildlife biologist, Scott Lindsay, of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Gray regional office, is doubtful such a cat prowls Cape Elizabeth, or any other part of southern Maine.

Nonetheless, Lindsay says reports of cougar sightings in the region covered by his office are not uncommon, and are taken seriously. Cape Elizabeth has been “an area of recurring observations.”

“Annually, from Kittery to Bethel, we get about 12 reports a year,” Lindsay says.

“We follow up on all of them with a phone call first. Sometimes there are photos. Usually there is a misidentification, or there is no way to verify [the reported sighting],” Lindsay says.

According to Lindsay, a cougar can be difficult to identify just by its features which “can look very similar” to those of a domestic cat.

Lindsay thinks that what Village Crossing resident Judy Newman saw in March of this year was a domestic cat, based on some digital photos taken from an upper story window, but without having the benefit of “measurement of site ... scale of trees” he “can’t be sure.”

“Scale is one thing that can trick anybody,” he says.

The large windows in Newman’s suite of rooms at Village Crossing face out toward the 32 acres owned by the assisted living facility. Those protected acres spread out to meet the 120 acres of Gull Crest Field and some of the 2000 acres of land owned by the Sprague family.

The land is wooded wetland, marsh, and vernal pools. “We see foxes, coyotes, pheasants ... In the winter, when the snow is fresh, it looks like a convention going on,” says Village Crossing assistant executive director David Rogers.

Newman says that the first time she saw an unusually large cat from her window, she noticed it had “ a very long tail, a long thick tail.”

“I pointed it out to Jamie [Village Crossing waitperson] and she said ‘Oh my God.’ We googled it and came up with the idea of a cougar or puma.” Asked if it could have been one of the ginger-colored domestic cats which are much in evidence behind the Village Crossing buildings, she says “I knew it wasn’t that cat.”

“I saw it again two Sundays after that and took pictures.”

“Cape Elizabeth has been one of the sites that seems to come up with observations and things like this come up,” Lindsay says. “It kind of baffles me.”

One Cape Elizabeth report from Ram Island Farm Road in Cape Elizabeth in 1995 “had the distinction of passing a couple of tests.”

Rosemary Townsend recalls the large cat she saw on a morning walk in March at the entrance to Ram Island Farm.

“I stopped for a minute to look at the pond. I thought it was a yellow lab at first, but there was a slink to him. It went to the pond and started licking. It looked up and I saw its face and I saw it was a cat and said ‘holy moly—I need to get out of his face. This is his territory, not mine.’ I backed away.”

Townsend says what she saw, from “maybe 30 to 50 feet” was the size of a mature yellow lab, “but thicker,” with a “big fat tail.”

Townsend says she recognized the cat as mountain lion because she attended the University of Vermont, where the mascot is the “catamount.”

At the encouragement of friends, who told her there “weren’t supposed to be any cougars in Maine,” Townsend called the police, who reported the sighting to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Townsend says tracks were found and hair was collected and, she was told, sent to Oregon for testing.

“About six months later I got a phone call from Fish and Wildlife [telling me] that it came back as a cougar.”

According to Lindsay, the hair was “consistent with” cougar, but not, as reported on the internet, confirmed by DNA as cougar. “Basically, it was determined that the follicle itself was consistent with mountain lion characteristics, but not conclusive it was mountain lion and no DNA was extracted.”

A cougar has not been confirmed in Maine since 1938.

Lindsay says he is “open to the possibility that mountain lions could be here,” but that it is “quite unlikely they could be wild in origin.”

According to Lindsay, the presence of a cougar in southern Maine could be explained in only three ways: dispersal from the cougar’s western territory; survival of a remnant eastern population; or the release of a captive cat into the wild.

The cougar was once “the most widely-distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere,” according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, www.fws.gov/northeast/ECougar. According to Lindsay, its primary territory is now the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. “That is a long way to disperse. [A cougar] can disperse 300, even 500 miles, but 1,500 miles?”

Also unlikely, according to Lindsay, is the survival of “some remnant population that survived [the overhunting and elimination of natural habitat] during the late 1800s and early 1900s, evading our detection,” and maintaining a “breeding population.”

The third explanation for cougars in the eastern United States, says Lindsay, is that “people have released them,” having held them captive, with or without a permit.

But in any event, Lindsay says it is “very unlikely that a mountain lion would be living in close proximity” to an urban population. “They require a very large territory.”

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service Web site, the range of a male cougar may be more than 25 square miles and the range of a female cougar between 5 and 20 square miles. Long-tailed and slender-bodied with red-brown or gray-brown fur, an adult male averages eight feet long and 140 pounds. An adult female averages six feet long and 105 pounds. The eastern cougar’s primary food was white-tailed deer, supplemented by the eastern elk (now extinct), porcupines and other small mammals.

Though presumed extinct, the Service placed the eastern cougar on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 1973. In January 2007 the Service initiated a five-year review to determine the present status of the species, and whether it should remain on that list.

Lindsay advises anyone who sees an animal resembling a cougar to contact the Fish and Wildlife Department (www.maine.gov/ifw/contactus.htm or 287-8000). “We will send a form. We like to have a record of it. We do take this very seriously.”

Lindsay emphasizes the importance of timeliness. “We need to get to the site, collect physical evidence,” such as hair, scat, or a kill.

Mike Duddy, a member of the Cape Elizabeth Conservation Commission, is “intrigued by claimed sightings of mountain lions or cougars,” noting that there was a reported sighting last year in Kennebunkport that was “never corroborated or undermined.”

“I certainly will be spending some time paying attention to tracks and scat,” says Duddy. “People in recent weeks have been hearing an animal in the Great Pond area—not coyote ... a call that they are unaccustomed to hearing. I am going to try to track that down, just out of pure curiosity.”

“It’s very hard to disprove these things,” Duddy says of reported cougar sightings. “Just a few decades ago people were talking about coyotes in the state. There were a lot of naysayers. But there really were coyotes here.”