Thursday, October 05, 2006

VA: The only cougars in the wild are probably escaped pets

The elusive mountain lion: Is he in Fauquier?

By: Alexandra Bogdanovic

Every once in a while, rumors surface about mountain lion sightings in Fauquier County. Although there hasn't been a confirmed report in more than 100 years, some experts say the rumors aren't as wild as they may seem.

According to information on the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Web site, there have been 121 reported sightings of mountain lions (which are also known as eastern cougars or pumas) since 1970. Additional information provided by the agency indicates that there have been sightings throughout the state, including some here.

Fauquier Sgt. John Arstino is in charge of the Animal Control division at the Sheriff's Office. He said he's checked out a handful of reports over the past few years. The most recent one was in May or June of this year, when someone reported seeing a large cat with a "long tail," he recalled. None of the sightings could be substantiated, he added.

Mistaken identity

Wildlife biologist Rick Reynolds, who works for the DGIF, has been tracking and investigating reports of mountain lion sightings since 2002. He said the most recent case he investigated here was at least a year ago.

"Our office is in Verona, so most of the reports that I get are from that area," Reynolds said. "(But) I also get reports that come to the DGIF Web site or our e-mail."

After examining countless pictures and other "evidence," Reynolds said he has been unable to confirm any of the sightings.

"We had one case where a someone reported that a mountain lion had been hit by the side of a road. When our biologists got there we found out it was actually a dog," Reynolds recalled.

In another case, near the Sky Line Drive area, Reynolds said someone reported finding "scratchings" or tracks in the sand base of a volleyball court. Upon investigation, wildlife biologists determined that the marks had actually been made by a domestic cat, which was using the sand pit as a "giant litter box," he added.

"There hasn't been a confirmed record of mountain lions in Virginia since 1880," Reynolds said. "But that doesn't mean that there aren't some that have been obtained and kept illegally and then released."

When asked to explain the public's ongoing fascination with the elusive cats, Reynolds said, "They are unique, wild animals with a lot of intrigue. It would be kind of neat if they were here."

Making a case for cougars

Since February 2005, staff members at Cougar Quest, an independent organization based in Winchester, have been working to prove that the cats - which are recognized as an endangered species - do still exist here. According to its Web site, the organization specifically serves as a "sounding board and collector of observation stories (and) proofs" of cougar sightings in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and other parts of the state.

The Web site contains more than 60 accounts of cougar or mountain lion sightings in Virginia dating back to the 1970s. Some of the most recent reports chronicled by Cougar Quest include "credible" but unconfirmed sightings in Winchester and Alexandria earlier this year.

"I have no doubt that they (the cougars) are here," said Barbara J. Chaplin, the executive director of Cougar Quest. "(But) we need scientifically re-confirmable evidence such as a really good scat sample or part of a (dead) cat in order to prove it."

Anyone who wants to report a mountain lion sighting or learn more about Cougar Quest can visit the organization's Web site at, or call (540) 888-3100.

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