Monday, August 22, 2011

Phil Brown: DEC Didn’t Sit on Cougar Report

Last week we learned that the cougar killed this year in Connecticut had wandered through the Adirondacks, having started its incredible 1,800-mile journey in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The news came a full eight months after the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) took photographs of the cougar’s tracks and collected hair samples. A few online commenters suggested that the department was intentionally sitting on the information.

Brian Nearing reports in the Albany Times Union that DEC didn’t notify local officials of the potential sighting.

“It does no one any good to put out conjectural information,” Gordon Batcheller, DEC chief wildlife biologist, told the Times Union. “We waited until we had solid evidence in hand. The report is finalized and we are pleased to be able to speak about it.”

But why did it take eight months?

DEC biologist Kevin Hynes, who wrote the cougar report, explained that DEC initially was in no hurry to get the results of the DNA tests. It was assumed that the animal, if it was a cougar, must have been a captive that had escaped from its owner or been released.

Following is Hynes’s account of events, based on an interview and his case report.

Cindy Eggleston was washing dishes at her home in the town of Lake George when she spotted the mountain lion passing through her back yard at about 8 p.m. on December 16. (A light turned on when the cat triggered a motion detector.) She called her husband into the kitchen, but by the time he got there, the lion had vanished.

Eggleston’s husband, David Eggleston, happens to be a retired DEC colonel. The next morning he and Environmental Conservation Officer Louis Gerrain followed the animal’s tracks in the snow to an apparent bedding site a hundred yards from the house. They collected several hair samples from the site.

On February 9, DEC sent five hairs to the Arizona School of Natural Resources to determine if the animal was indeed a cougar. The department was told that it would take months before the lab would have the results of the DNA analysis. As a matter of fact, DEC has yet to receive those results.

Then on July 26 the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection made a surprising announcement: a cougar killed by a car in Milford, a town on Long Island Sound, was a wild cougar that migrated from South Dakota, a journey of some 1,800 miles. The animal’s DNA matched the DNA of a cougar tracked in Minnesota and Wisconsin a year earlier. The DNA was obtained from hair and scat left behind in those two states.

After hearing this news, DEC officials wondered if the animal seen by Cindy Eggleston was the same cougar. On July 28, DEC sent four hairs to the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, the same lab that had analyzed the DNA of the Connecticut cougar. This lab was able to confirm the hunch in just a few weeks.

Hynes said Eggleston’s may have been the first sighting of a wild cougar in New York State since the nineteenth century, when, according to DEC, cougars became extirpated in the state. Some people believe that a remnant population continues to exist in the Adirondacks, but Hynes argues that the sighting of the Lake George cougar offers “good evidence that if a population of mountain lions lived in the northeastern U.S. they would likely be detected.”

Photo of cougar track in Lake George, from DEC.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

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