Media

Phantom cougar

mountain-lion-winter-forest-snow_-_west_virginia_-_forestwander.jpg

Mountain lion/Wikimedia commons

A mountain lion is on the loose in Alaska’s largest city.

Or so says the internet. The media involved is social, but it’s still called “media.”

In this case, the story started this way at Nextdoor.com, a website that connects neighbors:

“My middle-aged son and his wife had a leopard size cat jump out in front of them driving in Golden View  (Drive) tonight 8/19/2017. The cat was much larger than a lynx, jumped and ran like a cat. The tail was very long and exceptionally thick. There have been rare sightings of mountain lions in the MatSu Valley and Kenai Peninsula for years. They are nocturnal hunters. Our domestic pets make for easy prey.”

Given that the report was posted on Sept. 20, the date in the post was clearly wrong. That was not the only statement wrong.

There has never been a confirmed mountain lion sighting in either the Matanuska-Susitna Valley or Kenai, Cyndi Wardlow, the regional wildlife management coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said on Wednesday. The story is the same for Anchorage.

The lion sighting can at this point only be called a rumor at best.

Rumors used to exist purely as noise among neighbors. Social media has allowed the rumors to move onto a bigger stage. When rumors made it into larger discussions in the past, the mainstream media fact checked them. But Alaska’s mainstream media is today a shell of its former self.

And social media is everywhere, delivering its strange brew of news, gossip and make believe.

“There are aspects I love and appreciate about it and sometimes amazingly wonderful things happen because of it,” Hillside resident Brian Luenemanm messaged on Facebook, “and other things that cause me to want to light my laptop on fire and spend the rest of my days in a cave.”

The Hillside lion is one of those things.

Possible v. probable

There have been rare reports of cougar sightings all over Alaska for years. There have also been reports of UFOs.

Both could be true, but there is as of the moment no scientific evidence of either in Anchorage, the Kenai or MatSu.

Is it possible a mountain lion could show up in the Anchorage area? Yes, anything is possible, Wardlow said.

Is there any evidence of one in the Anchorage area now? No, said Wardlow.

Is it probable there is a lion in the Anchorage area? Again, no.

But when people read that which they want to believe, they all too often believe. The first lion post (names are being withheld here to protect the innocent) was followed immediately by these posts:

  • “Thanks (name withheld)! We’re in goldeview (sic) park!…have a little daschund (sic).”
  • “wow. what a thing to see. how exciting. I want to see one!!!!”
  • “Mixed thoughts on seeing one in the wild by my house or while hiking. Kinda like seeing the moose and bears here – I like seeing them, just not up close.”
  • “Wow….. They have been working their way into the state for years. I had one cross the Richardson Hwy between the Chitna (sic) cutoff and pump (station) 12 years ago when I worked on the (Trans-Alaska oil) pipeline. One of the pump 12 crew, who lived near Chistochina, told me that his wife had a few sightings near their place as well.”

The junction of the Richardson and Edgerton Highway, which leads to Chitina, is about 150 miles east of Anchorage as the crow flies. The rugged, glacier-filled Chugach Mountains rise between.

There have been past reports of cougars in the Chitina area. There has never been a confirmed sighting or photograph. The only place mountain lions have been confirmed in the 49th state is in the Panhandle, 500 miles south of Anchorage. Two of them were killed there in the 1990s. 

Southeast Alaska is home to many Sitka blacktail deer. Deer are the primary prey of mountain lions.

“On average, a lion will kill a deer every 10 to 14 days,” according to the Mountain Lion Foundation. “They also dine on coyotes, raccoons, rodents, elk, feral hogs, and even porcupines. ”

Mainland Alaska has no deer, raccoons, feral hogs or elk. The primary prey species in mainland Alaska is moose. Cougars have killed moose, but they don’t survive on moose.

 Cougar diet

“Cougar kills were 84 percent elk, 6 percent mule deer, 1 percent moose, and 9 percent other in winter, ” wildlife biologist Susannah Woodruff reported in a 2006 study of cougars and wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem, “and 80 percent elk, 11 percent moose and 9 percent other in spring.”

No predator can survive on only 11 percent of its normal diet or even double that. If prey are not available, predators starve to death. Moose as cougar prey in Alaska are even less available than in Wyoming.

The Shira’s or Yellowstone moose “weigh less than or equal to 816 pounds,” according to “Ecology and Management of the North America Moose,” the definitive guide to the species.

“Live weight of (Alaskan/Yukon or tundra moose) cows (are) up to 1,100 pounds; bulls weigh 1,566 and possibly more.”

In other words, Alaska moose can get to be about twice the size of Yellowstone moose, making them twice as hard to kill. And Alaska moose, given the lower productivity of northern ecosystems, exist at lower population densities than in Wyoming, making them harder to find.

Alaska wolves are adapted to ranging huge territories to find moose and attack them as a pack. Mountain lions are lone, ambush predators that need to find their prey in terrain that makes an ambush possible.

“I imagine a cougar could live on sheep and mountain goats,” said Luenemann, “but (those animals) are usually hanging out in such exposed, visible areas that surely someone would’ve seen a cougar hunting them, or the results of the hunt by now. (And) with so many people using game cams these days, I’m sure (a mountain lion) would’ve shown up on one by now if one was hanging around the Hillside.”

Luenemann used to lived in Colorado, a state in which mountain lions are native. The environment of The Centennial State makes it well suited to mountain lions.

Just as the environment of Alaska makes it unsuited to mountain lions. It is about as likely a mountain lion would be found in mainland Alaska as a moose would be found in Los Angeles.

Anything can happen

As the responses at Nextdoor piled up, some people did try to point out why a report of a mountain lion on the Anchorage Hillside should be treated with a great deal of skepticism.

Many refused to buy that idea.

“Yes there r mt.lions in Alaska,” one commented, failing to note that the only proven mountain lion apperances in Alaska have been on the Panhandle which is geographically more a part of the Canadian land mass than the Alaska land mass.

Still, it is not impossible that a cougar could show up in Anchorage.

Wardlow remembers how people in Michigan, where she used to live, scoffed at the idea of a mountain lion on the loose there until it killed a horse and was captured. It was, she said, a very real mountain lion.

It also turned out to have been someone’s exotic pet before being released to run free in the Wolverine State.

There appears to be a  mountain lion for sale on this website now.  In some states (Alaska is not one of them), it is legal to own a lion, or just about any animal you want, as a pet. 

Transporting a mountain lion from anywhere in the lower 48 to Michigan would be easy, Wardlow observed. Bringing one to Alaska would be a more difficult, but maybe if it was a kitten one could convince Canadian and then U.S. border patrol agents it was a regular cat.

If you get a picture of this cat in Anchorage, send it to craigmedred@gmail.com pronto.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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16 replies »

  1. Yes, the thought of a mountain lion taking on a massive, healthy bull moose seems ridiculous, but what about, sick, weak or old ones, or calves or yearlings. Even wolves would choose to go after them over a full-grown bull moose. Just saying.

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    • yup, if a cougar got into a situation where it had access to an adequate number of moose in those two cohorts, and it didn’t have too deal with too much competition from grizzly bears and wolves, it might do fine. but you might note:
      “At the recent Interagency Wolf Conference at Chico, Montana, researchers Jim and Holly Akenson from the Hornocker Wildlife Institution gave a presentation about the interactions of predators and ungulates before and after the huge fires of 2000 in the Big Creek area of the Franck Church Wilderness of Idaho. Among many other findings, they found that wolves consistently displaced cougars from the cats’ kills both before and after the fires.

      “Research by Diane Boyd and others in the North Fork of the Flathead in the early 1990s (NW Montana) found that wolves consistently killed cougar in the area.” http://www.forwolves.org/ralph/wolves-deadcougar.htm

      and we have a lot of open habitat in Alaska better suited to wolves, especially in winter, than cougars who need some cover to hunt from ambush. alders and willow buried under snow doesn’t provide much cover. just saying.

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  2. worth noting that in the recent past cougars have been moving up through the rockies. talk to people in whitehorse, cougar sightings have become not-uncommon. The mule deer are moving north, and the cougars are following.

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    • no doubt about that, Allen, and if someone reported a mountain lion up around Tok, i wouldn’t be at all surprised. it’s not unreasonable to speculate that if the climate continues to warm and deer move north, we could see cougars here, too. but at this point, well, if one were to show up in Anchorage it would be the Mother of All Dispersers.

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  3. It’s been a few years, but one summer I regularly saw blacktail deer in the neighborhoods adjacent to Kincaid Park. So you can’t rule them out as a possible cougar prey source in the Anchorage area. If the deer are/were here, maybe the cougers are/were too…

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    • Fred: the deer “were” here. it’s been a long time since there have been any reports of deer around Anchorage. and rare sightings do not a “prey base” make. big predators survive on established populations of big game. our only established populations of big game are moose, bears and Dall sheep in the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage. an adult Alaska moose would be hard for a cougar to kill and the same for a bear. that leaves sheep. it’s hard to believe that if anyone had stumbled on a sheep kill or seen a cougar stalking sheep that word of that wouldn’t have leaked out.

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  4. My first comment did not get posted, but edit wise, lone not loan, and Nextdoor not backdoor. As far as your article goes, one dietary study in the northern Rockies has no real bearing on the overall biology of the animal. There’s a whole bunch of lions that live in Nevada, Southern California and Arizona that are not eating large ungalates. So it stands to reason that a large cat could survive on the smaller mammals that we have here, or learn to kill moose, which are more plentiful than moose in Wyoming (regardless of slower development in the north). But all things being equal I still don’t think that there is a lion running around Golden View.

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    • in peak hare years, hares in British Columbia have comprised up to 25 percent of the diet of cougars there, but cougars actually surviving on hares is no more likely than wolves surviving on mice. in Nevada, Calif., and Arizona they prey heavily on deer. big predators need big prey. sheep and goats, as mentioned are a possibility, and yearling or calf moose. They’d have a tough time with a full grown Alaska moose. And then they have to find them. moose densities are petty low in much of Alaska. https://mountainlion.org/CAL_ch4.asp

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  5. In the 60s I lived in an apartment at the intersection of California St and San Antonia Road in Mountain View, California. The idea of a mountain lion appearing anyplace within 20 miles was out of the question. But the past two years a juvenile cougar has been captured at exactly that intersection. And the hills behind Los Altos are full of the cats. This is the heart of Silicon Valley. Why? Because the deer are plentiful so the cougar population has grown. And each cat needs its own turf. The young ones are forced into the urban areas. The absence of cougar chow makes it unlikely there are any around here. When everybody is carrying around a cell phone with a good quality camera in it there’s no excuse for reporting a sighting and not having a photo. Same for Elvis, Bigfoot, and a UFO.

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  6. A long time ago my father saw a mountain lion on his farm in VT. Mountain lions, or catamounts as they were once called in that area, had been extinct in that part of the country for a long time. My father called the local fish and game biologist and said: “Either I’m going senile, or I just saw a mountain lion in my hay field.” The biologist’s response was: “You aren’t going senile. There have been a bunch of sightings of that cat. And this comes as no surprise to us. It’s just another big cat that outgrew its owners down south (NYC, Boston, etc) and was brought up here to be released. We’ve seen this several times before.”

    The fourth to last paragraph nailed it. “Exotic cat”. People get a cougar kitty. It grows up to be more than they can handle. They drive it out to the boonies, like the Kenai Peninsula (there have been cougar sightings there too) or a dead-end road on the Anchorage Hillside. They let the cat go free, and drive away.

    Seeing a discarded exotic cat should come as no surprise, particularly right now. Recessions, where people lose their jobs and have to leave Alaska, trigger lots of pets being abandoning. It was really bad during the 80’s recession. Dogs, cats, birds … and even cougars, it’s no surprise.

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    • I live in Southern California. I know there’s mountain lions in the nearby mountains because I’ve occasionally seen reports of attacks to mountain bikers (one theory is that a mountain biker looks kind of like a deer) or some toddler whose parent wasn’t watching close enough (which caused much more ‘warning: wildlife is wild’ type signage). I go hiking and biking in the mountains, but I’ve never seen a mountain lion myself, except in the Chicago zoo.

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