OCTOBER 15, 2009
There's Nothing So Rare as a Cougar in Missouri
Still, Many Sightings Reported; Mistaking Tabby for a Mountain Lion
By JUSTIN SCHECK
When Jeff Beringer got a Sunday-night call from a deer hunter who said he had shot an aggressive mountain lion last fall, he whipped the Missouri Mountain Lion Response Team into action.
Mr. Beringer, a state biologist and the team's leader, rushed to the scene to investigate the hunter's claim and see the bloody arrow that fell from the beast as it fled. It was one of 150 or so mountain-lion reports that Mr. Beringer's team probes each year.
The team's verdict: Like every other report since 2006, it was a false alarm. Missouri's Mountain Lion Response Team has eight members. What Missouri doesn't have, says Mr. Beringer, is a single permanent-resident mountain lion. None of the big cats -- also known as cougars, pumas and catamounts -- are known to breed in Missouri, Mr. Beringer says. Occasional wanderers step across the state line from the west for a day or two and then go home, he says, but that is unusual.
Missouri needs an eight-member cougar team because it, like other nearly cougarless states, has a bad case of "cougar hysteria," as Mr. Beringer puts it. Of the 765 cougar reports Missouri has received since 2005, only two have been verified.
There is no shortage of cougars in the U.S. More than 30,000 live west of the Rocky Mountains, according to estimates. And there is evidence they are starting to move eastward. But deforestation and heavy hunting cleared the Midwest of cougars by about 1910. They remain scarce and are confined, wildlife officials say, to a few vagrants in the most remote areas of the Midwest.
Apocryphal big cats, on the other hand, are infesting the heartland faster than ever, thanks to a combination of mistaken sightings and deliberate hoaxes -- and the tendency of the Internet to magnify assertions. Residents of Minnesota and Wisconsin have recently reported false cougars in their midst, sometimes using photos of house cats. In Michigan, academics have published dueling papers based on tests of certain feline feces: One argues they are cougar feces; the other holds that most of them could belong to the neighbor's cat.
In several states, conspiracy theories have spread on the Web accusing state officials of cougar coverups. A lawyer formed Michigan Citizens for Cougar Recognition to push the state to admit there are mountain lions there.
In Illinois, "It is absolutely not true that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is releasing cougars anywhere in the state," said Sam Flood, a former Illinois wildlife official, last year. He was responding to a furor over emailed photos of a cougar that were purportedly taken there. Cougars don't live in Illinois, Mr. Flood said, though they occasionally pass through. An itinerant cougar was shot last year in Chicago.
The photos Mr. Flood was alluding to -- of a black-eyed cougar baring its teeth outside a house window -- were taken in 2004 in the backyard of optometrist Dave Rodgers in Lander, Wyo. There are lots of cougars in Wyoming. "It's just a bummer that they're kind of getting stolen by other people," Mr. Rodgers says. The same pictures have circulated in at least five other states and one Canadian province as "proof" of local cougars.
Such incidents baffle most biologists. "Maybe we really want to believe there are cougars," said Eric Anderson, a University of Wisconsin naturalist who gives monthly talks explaining that there are few, if any, cougars in Wisconsin. He uses a PowerPoint presentation to debunk sightings of purported catamounts, including the "Brillion cougar" (actually a tabby), the "Stanley cougar" (a house cat), and the "Ettick lion" (a bobcat).
He also shows that photos of the "Franklin cougar" were digitally altered, and pictures of the snarling "Conover cougar" were the same set from Wyoming. Mr. Beringer has discussed his findings at the Cougar Field Workshop, a three-day convention in New Mexico. Two sessions were dedicated to training biologists from states without resident cougars to deal with cougar figments.
Such training hasn't quieted the controversy in Michigan, a state with vast wilderness but, according to state officials, just two confirmed cougar encounters in the past 100 years. "As far as we can tell, these were passing through," says Chris Hoving, a state biologist.
That assertion frustrates biologist Patrick Rusz, who says, "I'm 100% sure, no question, absolutely, we have cougars in Michigan." In 2003, he began a three-year effort to prove his point by having volunteers collect feces from Michigan woodlands. In 2006, he published a paper that said DNA tests on the excrement proved the presence of eight Michigan mountain lions.
But in a rebuttal the following year, other scientists said Dr. Rusz used DNA-testing methods that couldn't distinguish cougar droppings from house-cat or lynx excrement -- and that only one of his stools was likely from a cougar. The rebuttal was led by Allen Kurta, a bat expert who was recruited to do the study because he hadn't previously been involved in the cougar spat. "With the controversy, they wanted to bring in someone who wasn't that set one way or the other," he says.
Dr. Rusz calls the rebuttal study "a politically inspired off-the-cuff attack" that "didn't take into account the physical nature of our scat," which was up to an inch-and-a-half in diameter. He says state biologists are in denial because they don't want to deal with the expense of managing an endangered species.
Dr. Rusz has support from the Michigan Citizens for Cougar Recognition, founded by attorney Denise Noble after she heard a Department of Natural Resources official say a few years ago that Michigan is cougar-free. "They said, 'Ma'am, we have no cougars.' And I said, 'That's ridiculous,'" she says.
Ms. Noble was on alert this past summer after a trio of Michigan cougar reports. The first two were quickly debunked as fraudulent. But on Labor Day, Jerome Wiater, a Beverly Hills, Mich., orthopedic surgeon, saw a large cat skulk past his country house. "It was like our eyes were locked on each other," he says.
Dr. Wiater took a photo when he recognized the animal as a cougar. Dr. Rusz drove to Dr. Wiater's home, took photographs and measurements, and determined that a cougar had been there. "He said it was one of the best photos that they have of a wild cougar in Michigan," Dr. Wiater says.
Mr. Hoving, the state biologist, says the sighting remains unverified. Dr. Wiater says state officials told him the photo looks like that of a house cat. Mark Dowling, director of the Cougar Network, a nonprofit research group, says scientists with the group decided, "It's an obvious house cat."
The Missouri team often tells people the same thing. "You would be astounded by how many videos we receive of house cats walking through fields," says Bill Heatherly, a team biologist.
Last year, team members investigated a reported horse mauling. (They concluded the horse's scrapes were from barbed wire.) They questioned a 12-year-old, who recanted his account of a cougar attack after tests on his bloody coat turned up evidence of DNA from chicken and cow blood, but none from a cougar.
In the bowhunter case, Mr. Beringer says, he and his colleague investigated the scene until "we found a dead bobcat" with a puncture wound. "But the hunter was pretty convinced that wasn't what he shot," Mr. Beringer says, and insisted he hit a mountain lion. DNA tests on his arrow matched the blood of the bobcat carcass.
Write to Justin Scheck at firstname.lastname@example.org
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org