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Down the Road

Cougar in Maine, to be or not to be
By Milton M. Gross
Jan 22, 2012 - 4:41:13 AM

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To be is my answer.

Not only because I've seen one in Maine, but because other knowledgeable Maine residents have shared their cougar-sightings with me.

But it's extinct in Maine, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who appeared this week on Maine Public Broadcasting Network's Maine Watch.

The next paragraph is from the show's lead-in: "The last time an Eastern cougar was shot and killed in Maine was 1938. Now, it has been declared extinct. Yet, hundreds of people believe they've seen them. Meet a couple of those people and U.S. Fish and Wildlife expert Mark McCollough."*

Jennifer Rooks, the show's host and interviewer, asked the right questions. But some of McCollough's answers, in my opinion (and like all of us, I have one) were somewhat misleading. Also in my opinion, they were that way deliberately.

Why? One of Rook's questions, various versions of which I've heard and read over the years, was, if the cougar is officially living in Maine as an endangered species, wouldn't that mean land set aside as its habitat and limitations established on development within that area? McCollough's response was his lowering his head, eyes not directed at either Rooks or the camera, and a mumble that I couldn't understand.

This, I suspect, is the real reason the Eastern cougar is officially considered extinct. It it doesn't exist, then no problem. No land needed for its protection. No rules needed for developers to follow. In other words, no money lost for big -- or smaller -- business.

But McCollough said that over the years there have been "hundreds" of cougar sightings in Maine. He added that most people only see what they think is a cougar for a few seconds. He also said most people are not expert in seeing cougar, or words to that effect.

Maybe someone once thought a Saint Bernard was a cougar. I've never heard of that person. I do know a cat is a cat is a cat.

This probably isn't a cougar. She may just be Smokey, one of the three kitties who share our house with us. Milt Gross photo.

The biologist dealt with a subspecies of cougar, I believe the Eastern cougar. He didn't actually say that other species of cougar have been seen in Maine but that some may have wandered into the Pine Tree State. He also didn't say they haven't been seen in the Pine Tree State. In my opinion, it probably doesn't matter one way or the other to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as long as they don't have to take any action concerning whatever has been seen in Maine that will restrict development.

I knew the bobcat we watched for two days chowing down on a dead deer within easy camera shot of our bedroom window was not a cougar. I knew it was a bobcat. I also knew it was not a Saint Bernard -- or a Great Dane.

When I see something out of the ordinary, I generally see what I'm seeing and later speculate about details. In other words, I don't decide a cougar is a Great Dane and then later think about whether it may have been a cougar.

The only one I ever saw was walking along the westbound edge of Route 3 somewhere around Palermo or Montville. It was at night, and I was driving home to Swanville, which dates my only sighting to be in the 1970s when we lived in Swanville. I saw the big cat in my headlights as I was driving east, not planning to see any animal.

I first thought, is that a Great Dane? The instant answer was, no. Great Danes, large, thin, often tawny-colored dogs, don't have cat faces. This was the face of a large cat.

Let's see. Could it have been a moose? No, don't think so. They don't have cat faces either. A deer? Nah, no way. A stray kitty? Too big. I wonder what else it could have been.

I know, a cougar, or mountain lion, or catamount -- all the same beastie.

It also had the long tail of a cougar.

All these years I was pretty sure this cougar was a cougar. Still am. Was it the subspecies Eastern cougar? Who knows? Didn't know they came that way.

In other words, Mr. U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, don't tell me I didn't see and know what I saw. My eyes clearly saw it, and my brain filled in the information.

I've written the following tales before, I believe, but they are worth repeating.

Two school kids I knew who lived in Dixfield told me they had just gotten off the school bus and were walking along the road toward home. They heard something in the roadside brush behind them and caught a glimpse of guess what. No, not a varying hare. A mountain lion. It followed them for awhile, I assume out of curiosity as to what kind of critters climb down out of a yellow metal box and walk down the road. Somewhere in a short time, it was no longer there. Probably decided that since they weren't mice, why bother eating them. Which, I'm pretty sure made them thankful they weren't mice -- maybe, if they thought about being mice.

While I was editor of the Podunk Weekly non-newspaper in western Maine a century or so ago, a man phoned one day and said he had been seeing a mountain lion napping in his flower garden right outside his window several days in a row. He asked what I thought he should do. What I thought? Hey, I was an editor guy, not a mountain lion expert.

I told him I'd phone Jim, the local game warden, and ask him.

I did, and he said, "I'd let it nap."

Seemed like a sensible answer, and I phoned the cougar-napper watcher and reported Jim's advice.

And wrote a little six-inch story about it, which, after all, is what I was being paid to do in those days.

My last tale concerns a friend, who told me one day while he was riding my Island Explorer bus into Southwest Harbor that he had seen a mountain lion on the Valley Cliff Trail that follows the cliff on the east side of Saint Sauveur Mountain in Acadia National Park. The facts as he related them; he saw the cougar, and it disappeared. This friend is a fairly good artist, and I have no doubt he wasn't seeing a Maine Coon Cat. A cougar is actually pretty hard to see and mistake as something else.

But we didn't think the story, as was, was good enough to share with the tourists who rode my bus. So we added to it, just a mite.

In our mutually edited version, he had seen the cougar, and it had leaped at him. My friend, naturally being a little nervous at that point, ducked down. The cougar hit his back -- my friend was luckily wearing a jacket for this version of the story -- and bounced off. My friend last glimpsed the mountain lion sailing into space over the edge of the cliff.

Now isn't that a much better story?

I may have a point to all this, and it is for the benefit of all those fine wildlife officials who tell us that what we saw in the woods or near it wasn't what we saw but something else.

Just because you apparently want to preserve Maine for the developers, please don't call us all that stupid.

We know what we saw, unless we actually aren't sure what we saw.

A cougar in Maine is a cougar in Maine, not a Saint Bernard.

* In searching around on the internet for information about cougars, I came across www.cougarnet.org, which was described in these words, "The Cougar Network is a nonprofit organization dedicated to studying cougar-habitat relationships and the role of cougars in ecosystems. Although we conduct work throughout the range of the cougar, we are especially interested in the phenomenon of expanding cougar populations into their former habitats."

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@midmaine.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012


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