Think you've seen a cougar?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to hear from you.
One reason why that's important is because a nonprofit group called the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy believes that possible sightings of the big cats have too often been shrugged off by state and federal officials as a lay person's overactive imagination.
Officials also have conceded over the years that they have attributed some claims to pet cougars getting loose on their own or being illegally set free by their owners.
But now, for the first time, the federal agency is seeking the public's help in hopes of finding out if an endangered species known as the Eastern cougar is really out there in any abundance.
It once roamed from South Carolina to Maine and as far west as Illinois, said T.J. Miller, chief of endangered species for the federal agency's Midwest region.
Got pictures? Video? Send them in. One of the most valuable pieces of evidence is the animal's excrement, called scat. If you're willing to play along, bag it and stick it in your freezer.
Details on how to collect and send in your evidence are available in the Federal Register. The point of contact is Mary Parkin, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser-vice's Northeast Regional Office, 300 Westgate Center Drive, Hadley, MA 01035. The announcement lists her phone number as 617-876-6173 and her e-mail as Mary_Parkin@fws.gov.
The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy yesterday urged people to contact the federal agency by March 30.
"We hope citizens who may have been keeping important photos, videotapes, and other evidence to themselves will take advantage of this rare opportunity to place it on the record," said David Haywood, the group's president.
It offered to help screen material before it is sent off.
Jane Beathard, Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokesman, and Sergio Pierluissi, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, said their agencies have received numerous calls over the years, including recently. But they said they don't know of a confirmed sighting in the Buckeye State.
In April, 2004, though, Sylvania resident Carol Stokes, whose property abuts the Michigan-Ohio line, videotaped what she believed to be a pair of cougars, or mountain lions, slinking along the edge of a Whiteford Township woodlot.
Her claims were disputed by the Michigan DNR, even after David Townshend, a former detective lieutenant with the Michigan State Police crime laboratory and nationally recognized forensics expert, concluded the cats in the Stokes video were large enough to be cougars.
And cougar sightings have been common enough in the Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan, west of Traverse City, Mich., for warning signs to be posted in recent years.
The wildlife conservancy claims it has evidence that cougars have killed Michigan horses, deer, and livestock.
The group said a study it conducted with Central Michigan University produced the first peer-reviewed, scientific report of DNA evidence of a cougar population in eastern U.S. states outside of Florida. The report was published in April's edition of American Midland Naturalist, the group said.
- Tom Henry