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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 17, 2010

Is there a cougar in our midst?

By Anne Hayden

ALTAMONT — Two sightings of a mountain lion have been reported in Altamont this week.

Sheila Elario and Lisa Peck, both of whom work for the Guilderland School District, said they saw the animal as they were headed from Altamont toward Guilderland Center; Peck saw it Sunday night around dusk, and Elario saw it the next morning.

“I did not believe what I saw,” Peck said. The animal was standing in a driveway off of Route 146. She described it as brownish in color, with a very long tail and pointed ears.

Rick Georgeson, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said there have been a handful of reports of mountain lion sightings over the years.

“Every time we investigate, we either find nothing, or we find out it was a different animal,” Georgeson said. Often, it turns out to be a bobcat, or even a house cat or a dog, he said. A bobcat is much smaller than a mountain lion, and has a bobbed tail; the DEC keeps a life-sized cardboard cutout of a mountain lion to show people how large it actually is, he said. Male adult cougars are about two to two-and-a-half feet tall at the shoulders and can be eight feet long, weighing 100 to 200 pounds.

 It is not, however, impossible for a mountain lion to be in the area, said Georgeson.

“Sometimes people keep them illegally as pets, and then let them go when they get too big,” said Georgeson.

Rainer Brocke, a professor emeritus at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, and a leading expert on the eastern mountain lion, said that 99.9 percent of the time, when someone glimpses a mountain lion in the Northeast, it is a pet that escaped. He said his extensive studies of the eastern United States show that it would be impossible for a wild mountain lion to survive in the area.

Mountain lions were native to the area up until about 1900, when forest fires, clearing the wilderness for farmland, and hunting caused a sharp decline in their population. Since the turn of the 20th Century, the development of extensive highway systems has made it further impossible for wild mountain lions to survive, said Brocke.

In the South, according to Brocke, people often breed mountain lions illegally and sell them as pets. They are often sold to tourists, which is how they can become displaced, in habitats that are not native to them.

“If a mountain lion has escaped from an owner, it will roam and just keep moving. Generally, they aren’t dangerous, but, as with any wild animal, people should keep their distance,” Brocke said.

“I was absolutely stunned when I saw it,” Elario said. She was driving from Altamont Elementary School toward Guilderland Center when the animal crossed the road in front of her car. She said it was long, lean, had white underneath its muzzle, and did not seem afraid of her moving vehicle.

“It didn’t dart across the road like most animals do. It just walked across like it owned the place,” Elario said. She said it disappeared into the brush. She works with Peck and called her to tell her what she thought she had seen, and was shocked when Peck told her she’d seen the same thing less than 12 hours earlier.

Both Brocke and Georgeson agreed that the only way to identify a mountain lion in the area would be from tracks or droppings. If a mountain lion were in the area permanently, and not just moving through, it would be relatively easy to find a track in mud or gravel, according to Brocke. He said mountain lion tracks are very distinctive, and hard to confuse with other animal tracks.

Georgeson said that, if someone could provide a track, droppings, or a picture, the DEC would come out to investigate.

“It was a magnificent animal,” Peck concluded. “I don’t want anyone to kill it, but maybe just relocate it.”

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