Eastern Cougar Foundation
EasternCougar.org
cougarrewilding.org

Cougar Rewilding Foundation

 


Beyond Sightings to Sign
Sightings

Sightings: Frequently Asked Questions

As a small, volunteer-run organization, the Cougar Rewilding Foundation devotes significant time responding to cougar sightings, from Nova Scotia to Georgia, and west to the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, we are unable to verify, and in most cases, to go onsite to look for critical evidence to support these sightings. Since the ECF’s inception in 1998, years of fielding, following up, and soliciting evidence from such reports have failed to produce a single cougar confirmation. In order to more efficiently use our resources, the ECF has decided to shift its energy away from sightings, and into advocacy, education, and habitat conservation, so when cougars arrive in the East, they will be protected and permitted to recover in suitable areas.

To this end, the CRF will respond only to reports where evidence has been gathered. If you wish to report a sighting, please take the time to read through the FAQ, and follow our suggestions.

What is an eastern cougar?

An eastern cougar is a wild cougar that lives in the East now, but its ancestors did not necessarily live in the East. Recent genetic research has determined that the eastern cougar never existed as a separate subspecies. Throughout their wide range across the Americas, cougars differ typically in skull characteristics, size, and pelage. For example, the Florida panther has a Roman nose profile, is smaller, and has shorter fur than a cougar living in the northern Rocky Mountains. However, all of North America’s cougars belong to a single subspecies.

Cougars were once native to the East, but they were wiped out in the late 19th century by a combination of habitat destruction, persecution by settlers, government-sanctioned bounty hunting, and loss of their primary prey, the white-tailed deer. While deer have recovered in the East – they are probably more abundant now than when Europeans first settled here – cougars have not.

Why then, is the eastern cougar listed as an endangered species?

By the 1960s and early 1970s, a few cougars had been killed in the wild east of the Mississippi River, and many people claimed to have seen them. Based on these circumstances, and a now outdated cougar classification, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the subspecies as endangered in 1973 under the newly created Endangered Species Act. However, recent genetic evidence from eastern Canada has revealed apparently wild cougars with Latin American ancestry. We now believe most of the cats appearing in the eastern United States since the 1960s have either escaped or have been deliberately released from the exotic pet trade. It appears likely they are not the scattered remnants of a native population.

Until the USFWS announces their pending review of the status of the eastern cougar, any cougar found in the East is protected both by federal and state regulations.

Are cougars now recovering in the East?

Not yet. Despite more sophisticated technology for finding cougars, and with more people looking than ever before, less evidence has appeared in the last decade than in the 1990s (perhaps because of recent strict legislation prohibiting interstate trade in exotic cats and new state laws prohibiting private ownership of such cats).

Sanctioned studies since the late 1990s by the CRF, research universities, and state and federal wildlife agencies in NY, NJ, PA, MD, VA, WV, and KY have failed to find evidence of cougars. Incidental evidence such as roadkills, accidental shootings or trappings, and photographs captured by privately owned remote wildlife cameras is nearly absent.

Even in Midwestern states with low or emerging cougar populations, incidental evidence appears with reliable frequency.

Have federal or state wildlife agencies released or reintroduced cougars?

No. While rumors of clandestine agency releases persist – of cougars found with tags or collars – there is no evidence to suggest this has occurred. There would be far more cougar confirmations if this were true.

What is a confirmation?

A confirmation is cougar evidence such as photographs, tracks, scats (droppings), deer kills, or dead cougars that have been evaluated by at least two recognized experts.

Most of the confirmations in the past decade have occurred along the eastern United State’s periphery, along the Mississippi River basin and in eastern Canada. The nearest recognized breeding populations are in central and western Texas, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Badlands of North Dakota, and the Cypress Hills of southeastern Alberta.

With few confirmations, why are there so many reported sightings of cougars in the East?

Sightings are the great conundrum in eastern cougar research. As reliable as sightings may appear to be, our experience – and the experience of wildlife agencies – is that the vast majority of cougar reports are misidentifications of other animals. Although the CRF has fielded hundreds of first-hand accounts and evaluated countless pieces of evidence, and while there remains always the possibility of a released or escaped cougar turning up, our sighting hotline has never produced a confirmation. The evidence we receive as photographs and videos, by and large, are of the cougar’s smaller wild cousin, the bobcat, housecats, and less often, dogs and deer. Large tracks consistently turn out to be coyote, dog, or black bear.

As much as we’d love to believe cougar sightings – and many of us at the CRF first joined the search inspired by so many reports – we can only conclude that there is a profound misapprehension inherent in these reports. Where cougars are well established, any knowledgeable individual can find evidence in a few days. Yet, our own field searches, sometimes within hours or a day of a sighting, have failed to produce evidence, and years pass between confirmations.

I’ve seen a cougar. What do I do?

1. Examine your experience. Was the animal you witnessed really a cougar? Research the differences between large felines, especially between bobcats and cougars. As we mentioned above, the CRF’s experience has demonstrated that most sightings are misidentifications of other animals, especially of bobcats. Many bobcats in the East have faint spots or none at all, suggesting the tawny coat of a cougar.

2. If you feel that the cat you witnessed was indeed a cougar, report your sighting to the nearest game warden and/or state wildlife agency.

3. When possible, collect evidence as soon as you can. Cougars leave sign, lots of it: tracks, scat, and prey kills, especially of deer.

4. Contact the CRF only if you have gathered evidence. We will be pleased to evaluate this. Contact person Christoper Spatz at 845.658.2233.

Are there black panthers?

The phenomenon of black panther reports is even more bewildering than the cougar search. Aside from an 18th century painting, a verbal description from the 1880s, and a black-and-white photograph of a dark Costa Rican cougar carcass, there is no evidence of black or melanistic cougars. Black bobcats do exist, primarily in the southeast.

While there remains the possibility of released or escaped captive black leopards or jaguars, only a single example of such an animal has been documented: http://www.infozine.com/news/stories/op/storiesView/sid/28997/
Black housecats dominate the photographic evidence we receive of this nature (without the need to determine the size of a feline, differences in body proportions, tail carriage, and sitting posture can be determined accurately).
Joe Lankalis Characteristics and Conformation of Domestic Cats and Cougars Compared.
Fred Scott Head and Body ratios using Joes drawings.

Once again, we can only conclude that reports of black panthers are misidentifications of animals with a dark or black pelage such as coyotes, fishers, otters, bears, dogs, or housecats.

Are cougars dangerous?

While cougar attacks on people receive an extraordinary amount of publicity, the statistical chances are about the lowest of any wildlife encounter anyone will ever have; much lower than even being struck by lightning. There have been about 100 attacks, and a total of 20 deaths, in the United States and Canada since 1890. Most of these have occurred in California, Colorado, and on Vancouver Island, BC.

Cougars will from time to time prey on livestock and pets. These are often inexperienced, juvenile cats moving through an area on their way to establishing their own territories. Cougars evolved primarily to take medium-sized ungulates. In North America, deer comprise 80% of their diet.

Combining these statistical chances with the slimmest of cougar evidence appearing in the East, the risk to the public is virtually non-existent.

SIGN

SIGN

Field sign consists of any physical item left behind by a cougar, or physical documentation made thereof. Finding field sign that can be objectively analyzed by reputable scientists is one of the goals of the CRF. Types of field evidence are listed below. For field searches, carry with you several plastic bags, a camera, a 6 or 12 inch ruler, and equipment to make plaster casts (see # 3 below). Be sure to mark on a map exactly where and when you found the evidence. The CRF will be happy to work with you to obtain expert analysis.

1. Body or body part. A pelt is very occasionally found, or hair that has been snagged on a tree or fence. Carry some plastic bags, place the item in the bag, and put the bag into a freezer as soon as possible to prevent further deterioration of DNA.

2. Scat (droppings). Check a mammal field guide for description of size and characteristics of cougar scats. Move the scat into the bag with a twig; do not touch it yourself because you may contaminate the DNA (it's also possible to pick up infections or parasites from scat). As soon as possible, place the scat in a paper (breathable) bag in an oven no hotter than 150 degrees F and dry thoroughly. Store in an insect-proof container. Or scat may be frozen in a deep freeze (refrigerator freeze-thaw cycles degrade DNA), but this makes it harder to send away for analysis.

3. Tracks. The most common error is to identify dog tracks as cougar. For a description of the differences between dog and cougar tracks, read Robert L. Downing's paper.

The best evidence is a plaster cast made from the tracks, but photograph the tracks first with a size reference (see next paragraph for how to photograph tracks) before disturbing them in any way. Also, first measure the tracks and jot down the measurements. Plaster of Paris is available at most hardware stores; dental stone may be acquired from your favorite dentist. Carry some on hikes in a plastic bag; if hiking in a dry area, also carry a small quantity of water to mix the plaster. Use a two inch high collar cut from a gallon size plastic milk or juice jug to place around the tracks to contain the plaster. Place your jacket, a tarp or something similar over the tracks to preserve them from weather and to keep other animals or people from trampling them during the 30 minutes or so needed to harden the plaster. It’s useful to practice with plaster before heading out to the woods.

To photograph tracks, place a size reference (the best is a quarter or other coin from your pocket or, if you have nothing else, place your hand next to the tracks). Photograph the tracks from various perspectives to show all parts and capture different angles of light. Also photograph as best you can the setting of the tracks to show the terrain through which the animal was traveling and, if possible, the stride of the animal.

4. Predation. A deer or other animal killed or injured by a cougar will show particular kinds of damage, especially around the throat. A cougar kill might also be covered (or partially covered) with leaves or soil. A possible cougar kill should be analyzed on site by someone with expertise in analyzing wildlife signs, but before notifying anyone, and before disturbing the site at all, take a variety of photos to document as well as you can the characteristics of the wounds.  Dr. Rick Rosatte of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has generously made his Cougar Predation Fact Sheet available to visitors to this website.

5. Video/Photograph. The several videos and photographs that exist were taken by people who happened to have a video camera close to hand in a house or car when they saw a cougar, so it pays to have one handy if you are staying or traveling through good cougar habitat. Often the size of the animal cannot be determined from an image alone. If there is the least bit of doubt, we must identify it as a house cat or other smaller animal. You may avoid this problem by taking another shot after the cougar leaves. The photographer should stand exactly where s/he was when the cougar image was “captured.” Someone else or an object of known size should stand or be placed where the cat was located.

If you find field evidence, please email or call ECF contact person Chris Spatz at 845-658-2233 as soon as possible. He will inform you of the possibilities for testing the evidence. NEVER send all of the evidence away for any reason. Always keep at least a small sample of scats or hair, and keep the originals or negatives of any photos, video film, or plaster casts, sending copies off instead.

 

CONFIRMATIONS

CONFIRMATIONS

The ECF accepts only written documentation from reputable sources to confirm field evidence of cougar presence in the East. In 2000, several CRF officers and Board members wrote and presented a paper listing twelve confirmations by type of evidence at the 6th Mountain Lion Workshop. This series of Mountain Lion Workshops is the official forum for academic scientists and state and federal wildlife biologists concerned with management of cougars in both North and South America. Our paper was the first presentation of scientific evidence of cougars in the east. Since then, additional confirmations are as follows, by type of evidence:

Body or body part:

KY kitten. In June, 1997, a man driving a pickup truck hit and killed an eight pound spotted female cougar kitten on Highway 850 in western Floyd County, KY. He said he also noticed a larger and a smaller shape, most likely the kitten's mother and sibling, because the kitten was still too young to be out on her own. The driver took the body to the Kentucky Department of Game & Fish, which froze it. When the kitten was analyzed, she was found to have all her claws intact, with no tattoos, tags, collars or other indication of captivity. DNA analysis indicated that the kitten's maternal ancestry included genes from South America, pointing to the pet trade (South American cougars are popular in the cougar pet trade), but paternal ancestry was shown to be North American.


This kitten is important for several reasons: she was a highway fatality, and biologists claim that if cougars were present in any numbers some would get hit by cars; she indicates that reproduction is going on in the wild; and she exemplifies the mixing of cougars from various origins that is probably occurring in the eastern woods. An April 20, 2001 letter from Steve Thomas, Wildlife biologist, KY Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources to Chris Bolgiano, ECF vp, confirms the above information.

Ontario bite. The Ottawa Citizen of August 15, 2001, in a story written by Matthew Sekeres, reported that David Wood, a resident near Cornwall, went outside around 1 a.m. on the night of Aug. 4 in response to the barking of his brother's dog. Mr. Wood said that he noticed the top of a tail near a goat pen and came within one metre before an animal lunged at him. He protected his face with his forearm, which was bitten. He kicked the animal, which disappeared before Mr. Wood got a good look at it, but the next day around 7 p.m. he said he saw a cougar crouching in roughly the same spot near the goat pen.

Dr. Lee Fitzhugh, Wildlife Enhancement Specialist, Dept. of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology at the University of CA at Davis, analyzed the position of the teeth from photos of the bite and determined that the bite matched that of a cougar.

This is the first confirmed cougar attack in the East since 1751.

For an overview of cougar confirmations, see the Cougar Network’s Big Picture Map:

http://www.easterncougarnet.org/bigpicture.html

 

 

Last Update Thursday March 13, 2014 9:22 AM

©2006-2012 Cougar Rewilding Foundation ~ EasternCougar.org, courgarrewilding.org ~ web site maintained by Cougar Rewilding Foundation
Web Site Design by Keto Gyekis - kgNaturePhotography.com ~ Header photo: copyright Susan C. Morse