The Washington Times - September 25, 2008, 01:00PM

Glenn Therres, a biologist and wildlife specialist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources says, “We receive a dozen or two dozen reports a year from citizens who see, hear or find signs of cougars. Or so they think!” 

And that’s when the fun starts.

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In an article in the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, Therres mentions that reports of cougar sightings come from every sector in the state — as if we’re overrun with the big cats.

All the same, Therres and his colleagues log every report into a database (so far 150 “sightings” have been entered) and I suppose the wildlife specialists have a good laugh now and then.

However, one must assume that it actually could happen. There are, after all, wild mountain lions — not zoo specimens — in Florida. Roughly 100 of the pumas are not doing very well in the Sunshine state, where automobile and truck traffic or disease claim a few of the animals every year, but they’re hanging on and we wish them well.

Then there are occasional reports of mountain lion sightings in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, but no one to our knowledge has ever totally proved that what they saw actually was North America’s biggest cat that can weigh 150 pounds or more and from nose to the tip of the tail can measure nearly 8 feet in length. Some kitty this is!

An outfit known as the Cougar Network (www.easterncougarnet.org) tracks cougar sightings all over the various states where cougar populations are not known to exist. The network doesn’t believe phone callers, such as the ones the Maryland DNR hears of “a large cat the size of a German shepherd or larger dog walking down the trail.”

You’ve got to do better than that, says the Cougar Network‘s professional big-cat specialists. Cougars must be identified by having been captured, found dead, or the investigators must have seen definite tracks or other evidence.

Therres says the last of Maryland’s natural cougar populations disappeared in the late 1800s, probably due to the lack of the cat’s favorite food: venison. When the deer in those days were shot into near oblivion by market hunters, the cougar apparently looked for greener pastures elsewhere.

Therres reminds us all that it is very easy to misidentify a mountain lion by providing an example of people constantly misidentifying bald eagles. You’d think that with the distinctive white head and tail of adult eagles no one could foul up on it, but Therres says, “We receive reports of bald eagles that turn out to be ospreys, hawks, black-backed gulls and even pigeons.”

Pigeons? How can a diminutive pigeon ever look like a majestic bald eagle?

On the subject of large wild cats, you should know that Maryland and neighboring states like West Virginia, Virginia, or Pennsylvania, are definitely home to thriving populations of bobcats.

Bobcats are found in the mountains of western Maryland, even in some counties along the Chesapeake Bay and one sighting came from the Eastern Shore. Although they’re not often seen walking about like the plentiful whitetailed deer, the top Maryland counties for bobcats are Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Frederick — in that order.

Meanwhile, if mountain lion sightings are on your wish list, go to Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, even California, to mention some of the western states where the American “panther” is in good supply.

- Gene Mueller