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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org pronto.