Story last updated at 5:03 PM on Thursday, March 3, 2005

Cougar sightings in East Hill neighborhoods continue



By Chris Eshleman
Staff Writer

Mission Road resident Howard Grevemberg said he saw the animal four times over a 14-day period last month.

The last time was Friday before daybreak as he returned from walking his wife to the car. Grevemberg described what he estimated was at least a 120-pound cat standing in front of his oil tank, which gave him no chance to try and shoot it with his scatter gun for fear of hitting the tank.

"What I did was stare at it, walk backwards to the house, and did the white man's dash to the door," Grevemberg said Tuesday.

He described the animal as having a long tail, which would rule out the possibility of it being a lynx. The size of the animal also would rule out a lynx, which is indigenous to the area but grow only to about 40 pounds.

Grevemberg's report and others revive a suspicion present last fall that a cougar is roaming the area.

Some local trappers and hunters remain unconvinced.

"Until I see a photo of this thing, I'm going to be skeptical," said Phil Cowan, a former guide and trapper.

But while some note that cougars are not native to the Kenai Peninsula, the University of Alaska's Museum of the North has specimens of two cougars found in Southeast Alaska over the past 20 years, and Thomas McDonough received several reports of cougar sightings in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough while working there for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game between 2000 and 2002, although none were confirmed.

McDonough, now an assistant area biologist in Homer with the Division of Wildlife Conservation, part of Fish and Game, said although he did field reports this fall of sightings by road crews, the only recent reports he has received have been from Grevemberg — although he said he is aware of cougar rumors floating around the area.

Grevemberg said he has spotted and photographed large tracks on his property, but although he has sighted the animal he has not been able to photograph it.

McDonough visited Grevemberg's property recently, but said the tracks, which were by then a week old, did not allow him to make a definitive determination of whether the animal could be a cougar.

McDonough said the possibility exists that one or more cougars or a similar cat could have moved outside of the animal's habitat range.

"It wouldn't be unheard of," McDonough said Tuesday. "It's not uncommon for an animal that typically has a large home range ... to move hundreds of miles for food or mates."

Animals often are not adaptable to foreign climates, he said, but in some cases impressive dispersal of species can occur. For instance, Anchorage has reported Sitka black-tailed and other species of deer.

Without tracks or other evidence, it is impossible to determine what the animal might be. McDonough encourages anyone seeing a strange animal to contact the local office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The local office can be reached at 235-1725 or thomas_mcdonough@fishgame. state.ak.us.

"We'd like to be more active in figuring out a solution to this — we're not just blowing it off," McDonough said.

Link Olson is curator of the mammals collection at the Museum of the North, which documents mammalian diversity in the state and is Alaska's repository for biological specimens. Olson said that cougars, pumas, mountain lions and catamounts, are the same species — puma concolor — and are one of the most broadly distributed animals throughout the Americas, north and south.

The possibility exists that someone had a large cat as a pet and let it escape.

"My skepticism is whether this had gotten there naturally," he said, noting that authorities in California last week shot a tiger outside Los Angeles.

But evidence exists that cougars are slowly migrating north, Olson said, possibly the result of global warming.

If a cougar was confirmed to be in the area, McDonough said, officials would need to assess all the details before taking action. If the animal seemed habituated to human activity and was an obvious public safety concern, the state would try and capture it or put it down, he said — just as it would with a dangerous bear or moose. If it was only showing up sporadically, the state may not do anything.

Chris Eshleman can be reached at chris.eshleman@homernews.com.

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