A mountain lion was spotted recently by a resident in Columbia County, N.Y. (Submitted photo)As if they had seen a ghost, those who say they've glimpsed a mountain lion in the Hudson Valley must weather disbelievers. But knowing their feline apparitions are rooted in fur and blood leaves no room for self-doubt.
"I'm absolutely positive I spotted it. It just had this enormous head, and I definitely saw the tail. The tail is what did it for me," said Diane Winne of Philipstown.
Winne, an English teacher at Tuxedo High School in Orange County, was describing what she thinks was a dead mountain lion recently on Route 6 near Harriman State Park. The tail is a telltale sign for researchers and mountain-lion aficionados: Long tail means mountain lion; short tail is bobcat or something else.
The news last month that a Patterson family spotted a possible mountain lion in their Somerset Drive yard spawned several other reports of mountain lions - also known as cougars, pumas, catamounts or panthers - from throughout the region. But state and federal wildlife authorities maintain the large cats don't exist locally, except as escaped exotic pets. The wrangling over whether they do or don't has probably gone on since the state's last known wild cougar was killed in 1894.
"Part of me likes to hope that someplace in the Northeast, there's a population of Eastern mountain lions. I'm romantically hopeful," said Fred Koontz, executive director of Teatown Lake Reservation in Yorktown and a former mammals curator at the Bronx Zoo.
The accepted fact is that, except in Florida, there isn't a population anywhere east of the Mississippi. At one time, they roamed from Michigan, eastern Canada and Maine south to South Carolina and west across Tennessee. A mountain lion shot and killed by police last spring in Chicago was traced back to animals from South Dakota. Like other experts, Koontz points out that if they called the Hudson Valley home, a few would become roadkill. In Florida, where some 80 to 100 panthers are thought to live, seven this year have been hit and killed by vehicles.
"A lot of very credible people claim that they've seen mountain lions," he said. "The thing to me that's strange is we haven't found a dead one on the roads."
Christine Belcher, who lives in Dutchess County, said she was driving near her home last month and had to stop her Honda CR-V to let three mountain lions cross Dover Furnace Road.
"It was like a momma and a couple of smaller ones with a long tail, a flat face and big ears," she said, recalling the animals that were so close she could see their whiskers. "In my mind, I called it a mountain lion."
As a college graduate, Belcher said, she went home and checked several Web sites, including National Geographic.
"I'm not a scientist, but it was definitely a mountain lion," she said.
By the spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to release a review of the status of the Eastern cougar. The review, which began last year, is the first time the federal government has taken a collective look at the animal since placing it on the endangered list in 1982.
"There certainly have been cougars here in the East. Some people believe there is a residual population," said Mark McCollough, the biologist heading the service's review. "We can't find any evidence of that."
Once the review is published, he said, the cougar could be kept on the endangered species list or removed in recognition that it's locally extinct. It's also possible, he said, that some day Florida animals could be relocated elsewhere in the South to take advantage of more spacious habitat.
"They do seem to be coming back if you look at North America as a whole, including Florida, North Dakota, Texas," McCollough said.
Nicole Rubin, the Patterson mother who said last month that she saw a mountain lion, said several neighbors reached out after seeing The Journal News article about her feline sighting and shared similar stories. John Prophet of Patterson, who lives a mile away from Rubin, said he saw a mountain lion - "big head, big body, long, long tail - in his yard about five years ago.
"I know what I saw. It was definitely a mountain lion," Prophet said.
Winne, the teacher, said she notified the state park police about the carcass she saw later that October day, but nothing was found. The remains of a deer or a coyote, she said, would have been unwanted and still there.
"For the longest time, I wanted to put a sign there and say: 'Call me if you saw what I saw,' " Winne said. "I'm telling you, I saw what I saw. I saw that tail."
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