Cougar Website Tracks Sightings In Scientific Way

April 28, 2003
By ROSELYN TANTRAPHOL, Courant Staff Writer

A group of men long fascinated by the idea that cougars may be returning to Eastern states has launched an online clearinghouse that could help state and federal wildlife officials track the species.

Unlike the scores of websites that seem to take any and all reports of cougar sightings, the Newtown-based Eastern Cougar Network has a firm policy on what's credible enough to post.

The report of a cougar sighting in Winsted this month, or the calls coming in from Somers last fall about cougars roaming there? There's not even a mention of them on this site,

"This is a science-based organization," said Mark Dowling of Newtown, one of the founders. "We're working very closely with wildlife professionals. We're trying to maintain our credibility, so we try to be careful with what we put across."

The website accepts "confirmations" - such as DNA evidence or a carcass - and "probables." Probable evidence includes verified scat, or feces, large tracks examined by a professional, and clear sightings by wildlife officials. The closest confirmation pinpointed on the site has been at Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts.

The site's "big picture" map collects evidence found since 1990, and another map features details of sightings, complete with the agency that provided the data.

"There really hasn't been a concerted effort to gather up this kind of information," said Darrell Land, who studies the Florida panther for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and serves as an adviser for the website. "Each state may do it for the borders of their state, but there isn't a multistate effort to coordinate that information."

The vast majority of sightings in the East are cases of mistaken identity - perhaps a fleeting coyote or bobcat. If anyone sees an actual cougar, wildlife biologists say, it is most likely an animal that was taken illegally and then released.

Forest-clearing and hunting decimated the cougar population in this region around the end of the 19th century, and the predators are now firmly established only in Western states, a section of Florida and parts of Canada, biologists say. But the cougar population in the West has spiked since the 1960s, and as deer - a cougar staple - spike in numbers in the East, many believe it is only a matter of time before cougars begin breeding in the Northeast and elsewhere.

Adrian P. Wydeven, a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources who also advises the network, said the website is especially helpful considering how cash-strapped agencies are.

Wydeven, for example, leads conservation programs involving rare mammals in his state, so cougar sightings fall under his purview. But he does not have separate funds for cougars. The Eastern Cougar Network helps do the sifting and screening he and other wildlife officials do not have the staff to do, he said.

It took nearly a year for the founders, who are from New York, Kansas, Connecticut and Massachusetts, to prepare for the site's official launch this month. Dowling, a 41-year-old banker who has followed cougar reports since college, did much of the research, working closely with Ken Miller of Concord, Mass.

Their paths had crossed online while researching cougars.

Group members see much more data coming their way, and much more work to do for this volunteer effort.

They stress that their standards are key in this project documenting cougars. "They're not ghosts," Dowling said. "They're going to be hit by cars or they're going to get caught on film."