Friday, September 29, 2006

Vermont issues cougar license plate

Non-game program to benefit from 'cat tags'

By Matt Crawford
Free Press Staff Writer

September 29, 2006
Among the places Vermont catamounts have been spotted include beer bottles, University of Vermont jerseys and an energy corporation logo.

Now the legendary big cat of the Vermont woods will start showing up on license plates.

Beginning next week, Vermonters will have the chance to put catamount-adorned license on their vehicles as the state's conservation plate program undergoes a facelift -- casting aside the peregrine falcon in favor of the beloved but elusive catamount.

There hasn't been an officially confirmed sighting of a wild catamount in Vermont since about the start of the 20th century, but unconfirmed sightings occur every year and are charted by Vermont's Fish and Wildlife Department.

"Ballpark, I'd say we get 30 to 50 reports of catamount sightings a year," said Kim Royar, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife. "No, we haven't seen one, but there certainly are a lot of folks who believe that have seen one."

The state doesn't have plans for reintroducing the felines that were vilified, bountied and hunted out of existence prior to the start of the 20th century, but the cats remain on the state's list of threatened and endangered species.

The peregrine plate was introduced in 1997 for pleasure cars. Since then, sales of the conservation plate have generated more than $1.5 million earmarked for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's Nongame Wildlife Fund and Watershed Grants Program. The nongame fund protects, monitors and -- where possible -- improves the health of critters like the osprey and common loon. The watershed program helps cover the cost of projects such as streambank restoration, public access improvement and educational outreach.

There about 9,000 vehicles sporting a peregrine plate. According to Fish and Wildlife officials, both peregrines and catamounts will be available in the short term, until the peregrine plate inventory is gone.

The fee for the conservation plate is $20 more than the standard fee for vehicle registration. Of that, $10 goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles; the remaining $10 is divided between the Nongame Wildlife Fund and the Watershed Management Fund. When the plates are renewed, $2 will go to the DMV while the remaining $18 will be split between the two funds.

Vermont wildlife officials and lawmakers, who created legislation authorizing the special plates, are hopeful the catamount plates will reinvigorate the program.

"I'm not sure it's going to raise awareness on catamounts," said Rep. Steve Adams, R-Hartland, who served as chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources committee, "but we're certainly hopeful this newly redesigned plate will be a hot seller."

Adams hopes the plate will be a must-have for UVM supporters -- one of only two Division I schools in the country (Western Carolina is the other) who have catamounts as mascots.

Plate designers underwent a lengthy search to find a catamount image that would work on the new plate, said Brendan Cosgrove of the Fish and Wildlife Department. Eventually, the 3M company, which produces part of the plate's facing, found a usable cat. Cosgrove said the plates will be produced by inmates in Vermont's corrections industry program.

"We're finally ready to go on this, and there's a lot of excitement about it," Cosgrove said. "I think the catamount really signifies Vermont and its ruggedness. The legend of the catamount has been a staple of Vermont for a long, long time."

Contact Matt Crawford at 651-4852 or mcrawfor@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com Did they listen?

In the spring of 2005, The Burlington Free Press asked readers of the Living Outside section to submit homemade plans for a redesigned conservation plate.

By a wide margin, the catamount was the most-favored critter of Free Press readers -- outpacing spiny soft-shelled turtles, lake sturgeon and the increasingly uncommon dairy farmer.

Reader Bob Morgan of Montpelier spoke for many of our plate designers when he nominated the catamount.

"The catamount or its extant relative, the Eastern mountain lion, is not only an apt symbol for the state," Morgan wrote in an e-mail, "it also reinforces the message that we must protect our wildlife species or they will disappear." Get your plate

Interested in having a conservation plate on your vehicle? Here's how you can do it:
Go to www.vtfishandwildlife.com, click on the "GOWILD" license plate icon on the home page and download a conservation license plate application.
Stop by Department of Motor Vehicle offices in Bennington, Burlington, Montpelier, Newport, Rutland or Springfield. Cats tale

Puma -- the official name for cats called catamounts, cougars, mountain lions and panthers -- can weigh 70-170 pounds. Their bodies are usually 3- to 4-feet-long with their long tails adding almost another 3 feet to their length. Males will have more than 100 square miles as their territory, but females claim only a quarter of that acreage as their home.

Puma prints have distinct characteristics that set them apart from those made by other large animals, such as dogs. All cats have four asymmetrical toes with a middle toe set forward from the others and a little toe off to the right or left, depending on the paw. The palm pad will have lobes at the bottom and either two lobes or a blunt shape at the top, the end closest to the toes.

Size does matter. On average, a puma print can be smaller than that of a large dog. Look for small claw marks to accompany the print only when the cat traversed a tricky surface such as mud or ice.
-- Free Press

http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/apps/pbcs.dll/ article?AID=/20060929/LIVING/609290330/1004&theme=

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