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Question of the Month
January-February 2012

Controlled situation. Not a wild puma!

Is there a Puma conspiracy?
A Mountain Lion Cover Up ?

I don't want to seem like a nut case here, but I must ask this question and you'll soon understand why? Over the last two years I have occasionally posted a Question of the Month soliciting sightings from people who believed that they have seen a mountain lion in Pennsylvania or in other areas in the mid-Atlantic states.

I regularly ask hunters and outdoors people if they've ever seen a mountain lion, or know of anyone that has. Unless I am only dealing with a lot of delusional people with little judgment, something is out there. I receive about one email or phone call a month, on average, from people that I do not know who are contacting me because their sighting compelled them to do a Google search on puma sightings, and they found my site and previously posted questions. In personal contacts, that monthly average might even be higher. Let me explain this.

Very, very rarely, when I ask someone who would be a likely candidate (a hunter, someone who owns a camp in the deep woods, travels likely routes often, foresters), 'Have you ever seen a mountain lion?' do I get an immediate, 'Oh yeah!' Instead, the person usually pauses, sometimes with a sheepish or embarrassed expression on his face, and seems reluctant to continue. Most, quite honestly, don't know or can't believe or accept what they saw, they really can't believe their eyes. Recently, a man I spoke with told me that he was reminded of a sighting he and two friends had 20 years earlier, and after recalling the incident he was motivated to call his college buddies and reflect on their observation. When he told me this, he commented on how an experience like the one he and his friends had just is not forgotten. He saw a big cat. He knows and was familiar with bobcats, and it was not a weird house cat that he and his friends misjudged in size. But this one was black, and he knows mountain lions are some variant of brown.

In Michigan, there has been multiple sightings of 'black panthers,' animals that were thought to be mountain lions, or pumas, except that they were black. In Pennsylvania, I receive a few reports of black, big cats, which makes one wonder -- are there melanistic (black) pumas out there, or are those sightings always wrong. I've never seen or heard of a verified black puma anywhere, whether wild or captive, so I'd be inclined to dismiss reports of truly black big cats as misidentifications, even when a group of guys all see the same thing. However, recently I saw a photo of a melanistic bobcat, as black as could be, with bright yellow eyes. It had been captured in Florida, and was to be released.

An animal's coat can stray far from the norm. Everyone is familiar with albinism, the absence of pigmentation that results in a white, essentially pigment free animal, defined by pink skin and pink eyes. Albinos are often very light sensitive, and they certainly are conspicuous, and most do not live very long. Melanism is the reverse, where there is an abundance of dark or black pigmentation. Eyes are normal and are not light sensitive, and the over-all color, generally black, is usually not detrimental and may actually be of benefit. For example, leopards and jaguars, normally spotted cats, have a melanistic color morph, the 'black panther,' the black leopard or black jaguar. These color morphs are most common in rain forests and jungles. I've seen scores of leopards in the grasslands and deserts of East Africa and I've never seen, nor spoke with anyone, who has seen a black leopard there. In the forests of Kenya, however, they do occur.

In some areas, entire populations of a species exhibit this trait, for unlike albinism, which results in a conspicuous white color and light-sensitive pink eyes, there are no ill effects with melanism. Several populations of Gray Squirrels scattered around the country are black, and recently I heard of a neighborhood of black Eastern Chipmunks. So it happens, and who knows if it is existing in wild pumas in the East. It seems unlikely, considering captives have never shown this trait, but people are reporting big black cats. Who knows?

Recently the US Fish and Wildlife Service formally declared the Eastern Puma an extinct species, except for the remnant population in Florida. I have not spoken with a Game Commission officer personally, so I don't know whether anyone killing a puma in Pennsylvania could do so without legal repercussions. Hunters I've spoken with said they've been told you can't kill a puma, which they felt was ironic since the same official told them pumas don't exist in Pa. This is only hearsay, however, since I'm only going on their stories.

So how or why could there be a conspiracy?

Suppose, instead of declaring the puma, or Eastern mountain lion, extinct, the USFWS actually recognized the existence of the cat as a wild, breeding species. I'd suspect it would still be considered very rare, after all, it was thought to be extinct. Continuing with that thought, if that were so, then it'd be possible, if not very likely, that the Eastern puma would be an Endangered Species. So what?

Well, right behind our property lies a mountain ridge, one of several that makes a continuous forest that extends, with little interruption, for scores of miles in three directions. Flying over the area, I've looked down and commented upon the amount of habitat that would be available for a puma, if only they existed.

All of these forests are, with few exceptions, open to hunting, and hunting is a very important industry in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. Not only do hunting licenses support the various state game commissions, and in some states the acquisition and maintenance of public hunting lands, but hunters are a huge boon to local economies each fall, with purchases of food, lodging, hunting equipment, etc.

Now consider: If it was confirmed that there was a breeding population of endangered pumas on the mountain ridge behind my house, if the USFWS recognized the existence of this endangered species, what might happen?

Would my mountain ridge be declared 'Critical Habitat' for the puma? Would that declaration close that ridge to hunting? After all, skeptics often suggest that puma sightings are just deer sightings, so it would be logical to worry that a hunter might shoot an endangered puma, mistaking it for a brown deer.

Knowing that pumas range widely, would my ridge be the only one closed? Obviously, other pumas must be about, and the series of ridges extending north and east and west from my location could all be included as critical habitat as well. Would these ridges be declared off-limits for hunting?

If so, what would happen to the hunting industry in all of these states? I think it is possible that recognizing the existence of pumas in the East could jeopardize this industry and an entire economy. Again, I've been told that some Game Commission personnel have admitted that pumas may exist in Pennsylvania, but they rationalize this by saying that the pumas are not breeding and they are not from original wild stock. I don't know if a Game Commission authority has actually said this or not, but people I've spoken to have reported this.

If pumas do exist in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, could they all be released cats or escapees? Possibly, but it seems unlikely that enough would have been released or had escaped to make for a viable population. After all, how many people have pumas? And how many would let them go, or provide an opportunity for escaping? Let's say the facts indicate that there have been a lot of 'pet' pumas, and many of these escaped. I've know of reports since 1973, in Cooke Forest, the heart of a lot of Pa. wilderness. Where reports dating that far back from escapees?

Now, if there were any escapes, and if any of these bred with a possible minuscule number of eastern pumas, a relic native population, wouldn't the gene pool be corrupted? Would a puma then qualify as a native species? Consider that the endangered Florida puma has mixed genes. At one time this fact almost resulted in this cat not being protected, since it wasn't a pure strain. Over time, cats that had been released in Florida, probably pets that outlived their welcome, bred with the native puma, and their genes mingled.

This is actually a good thing, as genetic isolation generally weakens a species. And this genetic mix has been recognized, and the Florida puma is still protected. So, couldn't that same argument apply to pumas in the Northeast?

I'm wondering, then, if the complete dismissal of sightings of Eastern pumas (other than the acknowledgement of released or escaped pets) isn't motivated by economics. I'm thinking of the solution often suggested for pesky endangered species out west, namely wolves and grizzly bears. That solution: Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up. Are the various States guilty of essentially the same thing? If we don't see it, it doesn't exist. If we say it ain't so, it ain't so!

On that note, I was speaking with a Fed Ex driver recently who told me that one of his colleagues had seen what he swore was a dead mountain lion on the side of a road. A Game Commission vehicle was there, and the Fed Ex driver, after reaching the bottom of a long hill, turned back to check on what he saw. By the time he returned the vehicle was gone, and so was the cat, and no mention was ever made of this road kill in a radio or newspaper report. Perhaps my Fed Ex driver was simply recalling a rural legend, but he said it was an employee that he knew, and it was a story he heard first-hand.

Something to consider, even though we all trust the government. They are there to help us.

Controlled situation. Not a wild puma!

Questions of the Month

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What gear is essential for being in the field?

How Easy is NIK's HDR Program to use?

What is the most endangered big cat to photograph?

Why did we drop our NANPA membership?

What is the best $69 you can spend in photography?

More Questions about Pumas in Pennsylvania

Are the Latest Fast CF Cards worth the Expense?

How does the 7D hold up in a recent shoot?

Which is the better camera, the Mark IV or the 7D?

Are there Mountain Lions (Pumas, Cougars) in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic States?

Why is bat photography so difficult?

What do I think of the Canon 1D Mark IV?

Why do I advocate manual exposure so avidly?
Where can I find Depth of Field reference charts?

What is the Keboko backpack? Is it the New Best Pack?
Is there a correct position for the upright on a Wimberley actionhead?

How, Who, and Why? The story behind our new web site.

Archived Questions of the Month
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