Myself, I’m not in a hurry to meet a cougar in the woods.
But that doesn’t mean I never will.
There are grizzled old-timers and even young-timers who think they’re out there in the Adirondack woods, simply staying as elusive as escaped murderers.
Whether you call them cougars, pumas, panthers, mountain lions or catamounts, the question of the big predator cat’s presence in the Eastern forests stirs the human imagination, maybe even to new heights.
Just by bringing the topic up, I’m likely to be sent pictures of tawny critters chewing the headlights off pickup trucks, with claims the pictures were taken in upstate New York.
But don’t expect the state Department of Environmental Conservation or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy into it.
In fact, the Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday proposed removing the eastern cougar from the federal endangered species list, on the grounds of extinction. That would mean any cougars that are out there — or might someday be — would be without federal wildlife protection, should they happen into the yard of someone with a long gun nearby and a thirst to get their name in the paper.
The federal agency concedes there are legitimate reports of cougars in the Eastern wild, but maintains they are either Florida Everglades panthers, dispersing animals from western populations, or are captive animals that have been released or escaped.
But reports of Adirondack sightings have persisted for decades, and some of them come from credible people — people who say they know a large house cat from a mountain lion, and the long tail that makes a cougar distinctive from a bobcat.
Protect the Adirondacks has been looking to document cougars for a couple of years now.
The organization has no physical proof — scat or hair clumps or photographs — but gets a steady trickle of reports, said Peter Bauer, Protect the Adirondacks’ executive director.
“We’ve had a couple of dozen sightings, some of them from people who are pretty adamant,” Bauer said. “One of them was a veterinarian.”
There’s been a cluster of sightings in the Lake Placid-Saranac area, but they’ve occurred in isolated cases as close to the Capital Region as Queensbury and the southern Hamilton County hamlet of Wells, according to Protect the Adirondacks’ records.
A report from last August in Queensbury: “My boyfriend and I were driving home from the drive-in movies just after 1 a.m, on Quaker Road, crossing the road near the pond area. I had to slow down to avoid hitting the cougar. We both saw the cat in full light from my headlights no more than 20 feet in front of my car. The cat was about the size of a medium dog, and the tail was very long and definitely signature of a cougar.”
Above and beyond the anecdotal reports, it’s been verified that a roaming young male, most likely from the west, passed through the Adirondacks and close to Lake George in 2011, before being hit by a car in Connecticut.
A good lesson for humans and animals about being vigilant in The Nutmeg State.
“From all the active research out west, we know cougars are moving east,” Bauer said.
He said Protect is concerned about the federal delisting proposal, given the number of times some cougar-like critter has been seen between the Saratoga County suburbs and the Canadian border.
“It’s nothing we could take to try to document an existing population, but we’re concerned about the action by Fish and Wildlife,” Bauer told me.
The Cougar Rewilding Foundation supports the return of the cougar to the region, since historically they were as native to the Adirondacks as the gray wolf, the mountains’ other great predator that is now extinct.
With growing populations of deer, turkey and other prey, “there’s no reason to think the Adirondacks could not have a viable cougar population,” Bauer said.
If you’ve seen a cougar or want to share your thoughts on the federal plan to drop the eastern cougar from the endangered species list, the proposal will be available for review and comment through Aug. 17 at www.regulations.gov.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. Opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 885-6705, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.