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December 09, 2016
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‘The one that got away’

Every once in a while a story comes along that strikes right at the nerve of the community. It takes on a life of its own. You might guess it’s one of those topics like school merger or gas leasing. Serious issues, yes, but forget those. They will fade away. There is nothing that brings even the most reticent out of the woodwork than the debate over the local existence of the mountain lion.

The crux of the question is whether the mountain lion (Eastern cougar) survives in the wild in New York State as many local people claim. Or if the “ghost cat,” as the mountain lion is called, is extirpated from the state, as is the official position of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

According to the DEC, the species declined in the late 1800s as a result of the expanding population and habitat loss, and is considered extinct from much of its former range.

Many people, however, beg to differ. They say cougars, although rare, continue to survive in the state. There are stories of cat sightings, large paw prints and spooked livestock. Some stories are fantastic, but many seem credible, and it appears that nearly everyone has a mountain lion story—including myself.

Last spring, I swear I saw a mountain lion as it crossed our road and bounded into the woods. I rushed forth with my camera (leaving my panicked little daughter clinging to the kitchen window) but to no avail. The cat had already disappeared into the underbrush. It was long and slender with short, tawny colored fur and a long, black tipped tail. There is no mistaking that tail. I know what a bobcat looks like, and a dog, and a fisher, and an oversized tan tom cat, and it wasn’t any of them.

I am not a hunter, and it didn’t occur to me to check for paw prints or scat, as recommended on the DEC website. But there is no mistaking that tail.

However, the mountain lion continues to be “The one that got away,” as all the stories go. No solid physical evidence that would prove the existence of the mountain lion in New York has been produced to date, according to the DEC, although staff investigates sightings regularly. There have been no reports of road killed mountain lions in contrast to Western areas with established populations. According to the DEC, the last known wild cougar killed in New York was in 1894.

To further muddy the waters, forwarded emails featuring phony photographs of cougars are circulated, including a recent photo of a cougar stalking a deer. Upon closer inspection, the deer in the picture is a dark-tailed Western species, not our native white tail. The DEC also dismisses rumors that claim the agency itself has released cougars to the wild in New York State, but it does acknowledge that a few captive cougars have escaped to the wild in recent years.

The DEC recommends that anyone who thinks they have seen a mountain lion do their best to get a photo or video of the animal and check for tracks or other signs of the animal’s presence. The Cougar Network at www. also tracks reliable cougar sightings outside their recognized range.