Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cougar email hoaxes spread like wildfire

Murrell: As it turns out, these big lions were of South Dakota origin

By Marc Murrell
The Capital-Journal
Published Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rumors are everywhere. You hear about them from friends, family and various media outlets. Their topics include everything from infidelity to infinity and beyond. The outdoor world is no different and rumors abound about natural topics, too. No topic is likely more rumored than those concerning mountain lions in the Sunflower State. Each of the last few years mountain lion photos have surfaced that were tied to Kansas. And with the advent of the Internet and gullible readers these photos attached to e-mails with details fly across the state and country at warp speed.

"Most of the hoaxes go like wild fire across the Midwest," said Matt Peek, furbearer biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks who generally handles most of the rumors. "In fact, I've seen most of them from other states besides Kansas so it's not exclusive to us."

These rumors and supposed sightings of big cats tend to get the most attention in Midwestern states like Kansas that don't have much of a recent history with the large carnivore.

"It's not big news where they've got them, but around here in the Midwest the mountain lion has a lot of public interest," Peek said.

Peek admits the Internet may help speed up the spread of these rumors, but many of them were around long before computers and were spread just as rampantly by word-of-mouth.

"The rumors like so-and-so killed a mountain lion (with a tracking chip) and the game warden showed up at his house (and took it from his freezer) and (swore the individual to secrecy) were around long before the Internet," Peek said. "There's been rumors of KDWP stocking them (under the cover of darkness from black semis) and so forth."

Lions evoke strong feelings in people because of the nature of the beast, according to Peek.

"It starts with the biology of the mountain lion," Peek explained of the large cat's secretive nature. "And then you throw in some anti-government sentiment and a lot of other factors which cause this to be a subject of interest for a lot of people."

The latest round of photos focus on a deer kill found near (insert the name of one of several Kansas cities here). It shows a series of photos of not one but several mountain lions photographed with a trail camera feeding on a deer carcass.

"They're from the Black Hills (South Dakota) and you can see the orange ear tag in the one," Peek said of the color specifically used by researchers in that state.

The series of photos first surfaced on Outdoor Life's Web site: www.outdoorlife.com/article gallery/Mountain Lions-Feast-On-Deer-Kill. From there they got a mind of their own, likely someone wanting to "pull one" on their buddy as they added a few details to the text or simply believing it to be the absolute truth and passing it along.

The 2007 version of the lion hoax circulated a picture of a large cat with huge paws. A man crouched behind the giant cat and the story was something to the effect that it was hit on the Interstate near Ottawa. However, to add even more excitement to the tale, it wasn't dead and actually charged the KDWP conservation officer on the scene who then killed it. It was indeed hit on the road, but on a northern Arizona highway (www.snopes.com/photos/animals/mountainlion2007.asp).

It did have to be dispatched at the scene and was a huge cat by mountain lion standards. The text in the e-mail accompanying the photos was altered multiple times and the cat was credited as killed in other parts of Arizona, Kentucky, Arkansas, West Virginia, Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Illinois and Iowa.

Mountain lions could show up in Kansas. Surrounding states have plenty of documentation. Nebraska has had them hit on roadways, killed by trains and even treed in school yards. Colorado and New Mexico have plenty of lions so it isn't out of the realm of possibilities for some of them to wonder our way.

"Most likely it would be a dispersing young male," Peek said of the animals' tendencies to leave territories already occupied by adult cats. "They leave because they'll be killed by adult males if they don't and it's an evolutionary thing, too.

"A couple of years ago they were estimating that 20-25 lions were dispersing out of the Black Hills every year," he said. "But the one thing that is working against one of those lions showing up here is the areas they would travel, the river systems, go east and west in Nebraska."

Until last fall, Kansas hadn't had any hint of a substantiated claim of a wild mountain lion in the state in more than 100 years. A landowner in Barber County allegedly killed a mountain lion and that case is still being investigated. Thousands and thousands of deer hunters likely have at least that many or more trail cameras out in the woods, many of them year-round, and not one has ever captured a photo of a mountain lion. There have been no road kills, nor has anyone ever killed one to protect themselves or their livestock.

But yet the reports keep rolling in from nearly all of Kansas' 105 counties. Peek doesn't ever doubt anyone's report of mountain lions in Kansas or tell them they absolutely didn't see a mountain lion. But he relies on evidence to substantiate claims and after literally hundreds, if not thousands of reports without evidence through the years, he admits mountain lions may be present in Kansas, but they'd be rare.

"This trail cam thing (the cats in the Black Hills) is the perfect example," Peek said. "These people found a deer that had been killed and they put a trail camera up and they had mountain lion photos immediately. So if we had the mountain lions and the killings and everything attributed to mountain lions, you would expect the same thing to happen here.

"They're not difficult to capture by trail camera and they leave a lot of tracks," Peek said. "So it's the lack of evidence that leads me to believe that they're anything but scarce in the state."

Marc Murrell can be reached at mmoutdoors@cox.net.

http://www.cjonline.com/stories/121408/out_367318165.shtml


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