Friday, October 06, 2006

PA officials probe cougar sightings

Officials skeptical of reports of mountain lions say people likely are seeing some other kind of cat.

Posted on Fri, Oct. 06, 2006

Chuck Litwin Jr. knows what he saw. He just can’t believe it.

It was 9 a.m. Sept. 16. Litwin was driving his truck on state Route 92 about a mile outside of Nicholson heading toward Tunkhannock when he saw it.

“It was a mountain lion. It walked out real slow across the road about 20 feet in front of my truck,” Litwin said. “It took its time and didn’t care I was there, and then it walked into a cornfield.

“It reminded me of something you would see on the Discovery Channel.”

Litwin, who is a hunter, said he got a good look at the animal as it walked in front of him. The details he provided – long tail, golden color, etc., are prevalent in a growing number of alleged mountain lion sightings received by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

But the agency remains steadfast in its stance that a wild, breeding population of mountain lions does not exist in the state. Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said that if there’s a mountain lion in the Pennsylvania countryside, it’s one that was illegally released from captivity.

“There are people who believe they saw a mountain lion. We don’t question their integrity, but we truly believe it’s simply a case of mistaken identity,” Feaser said.

Still, he acknowledged that the commission is receiving more reports of sightings in recent months. As a result, the agency is establishing a protocol for handling alleged mountain lion sightings to efficiently document and tabulate each instance, unfounded or not.

“If we get a call and someone says they are looking at a mountain lion out their back window, we’ll send an officer right away,” Feaser said. “We’ll look into firsthand information and try to give it a timely response.”

Litwin contacted the commission’s Northeast Region Office in Dallas after his sighting. Wildlife Conservation Officer Victor Rosa, who covers Susquehanna County, responded.

“I went out to the location and couldn’t confirm any tracks,” Rosa said. “I’m not saying he didn’t see anything, because I wasn’t there at the time.”

Feaser said most of the calls reporting mountain lions turn out to be bobcats, fishers or extremely large housecats. Many people catch a fleeting glimpse of an animal and assume it’s a mountain lion, he said, and it turns out to be a bobcat or coyote.

That’s not to say there haven’t been mountain lions roaming the state in the last decade. Feaser said a mountain lion escaped captivity in Delaware County 10 years ago and was recovered some time later. In 2002, the commission cited a Dauphin County resident for keeping a mountain lion inside his apartment.

There are residents permitted by the commission to keep mountain lions, but the agency keeps strict tabs on each case.

“If the animal dies or is sold, they have to document that to us,” Feaser said. “We want to know what they did with it and, if it escaped, we want to know immediately.”

Feaser stressed the agency would never issue a permit for a mountain lion’s release and doesn’t support any re-introduction plans because the state is too densely populated.

Most of the mountain lion reports come from the Northcentral and Northeast regions, he said.

Rosa gets 30 to 40 calls a year from people reporting a mountain lion sighting. He’s received calls of horses being attacked and calves being killed (bears were the culprit), and even an instance of black panthers roaming the county.

Rosa listens to every call, responds to those that are timely and tells everyone to keep a camera handy so there’s evidence.

Still, there’s one fact that has Rosa question the validity of wild mountain lions existing in his district.

“I get calls all year except winter, when there’s snow on the ground. If there was a sighting in winter, the cat would leave tracks in the snow,” Rosa said. “But that is the only time of year when we don’t get calls.

“When I was an officer in Monroe County several years ago, I had a call for tracks in the snow and it turned out to be a bobcat.”

According to Rosa, the state’s burgeoning bobcat population may be to blame for the increase in supposed mountain lion sightings.

It’s proven that bobcats are expanding their range and increasing, and Rosa reasons that more people are actually seeing large male bobcats and not mountain lions.

Litwin, however, said he knows the difference between the two. What he saw on that lonesome stretch of Route 92 two weeks ago wasn’t a bobcat, he said.

“It was right in the middle of the road, 20 feet in front of me walking slowly,” he said. “It was huge, maybe 6 feet long not including the tail. It took eight or nine steps and it was across the road.

“I never thought I’d see something like that around here.”

Tom Venesky, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7230.

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