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The Eastern Panther

As a wilderness guide, I have always been alert for the rare and unusual.  With this page I am conducting an informal and ongoing survey of eyewitness encounters with wild panthers in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, especially in eastern Maine.

See more below or proceed directly to the survey page.

panther3

photo by David A. Woodbury

WHAT’S IT CALLED?
Whether called panther, cougar, puma, mountain lion, painter, catamount, or any of several other names, it’s the same animal, Puma concolor.  Some regional subspecies have been generally agreed-upon, from Florida to Wisconsin to the Canadian Maritimes.  (A panther, however, is not the same species as the jaguar of Latin America or the leopard of Asia and Africa.)

What’s in a name?  Other names are equally valid, but for consistency this site uses the name “eastern panther” because that’s the name recommended by New Brunswick wildlife biologist Bruce Wright in his 1972 book, The Eastern Panther – A Question of Survival.  (This book can be confused with his 1959 book titled The Ghost of North America – The Story of the Eastern Panther.  Both books are out of print, although The Ghost of North America can be found in PDF at http://www.easterncougar.org/pdfs/The-Ghost-of-North-America.pdf.  I have my own copy of his 1972 volume.)

WHY DO IT?
First of all, this effort is dispassionate.  Various other web sites are dedicated to the recognition and re-introduction of the species in the eastern USA and Canada.  (See ECF and other links below).  Most are not collecting sighting data, however.  I have no objective to accomplish except to let the eyewitness accounts speak for themselves and, if I can collect enough data, to plot sightings over time for a rough population study.  If these accounts are convincing to some readers and not to others, then some readers are persuaded and some are not; end of story.

This site does not have a latent objective to promote panthers as a game animal to be hunted as coyotes are, (although it’s tempting to advocate that the state allow a few to be shot in order to provide evidence for direct study).

I don’t have a hidden objective, such as preventing further timber harvesting in Maine by advocating wilderness preservation to protect animals that apparently are maintaining a healthy presence in the midst of present harvesting.  I’m not trying to make the case for some mythical beast.  Since I have seen two of them, however, I do want to be believed.  Look at the stories I’ve collected and draw your own conclusions.  If it serves your motives and if your motives are passionate, I am dispassionate about that as well.

I have no interest in promoting spurious claims, nor in discrediting anyone either.  I want to be credible, and it is plain that many, many other people who have seen them want to be credible too.

WHAT MATTERS?
It makes no significant difference to the ecosystem whether the cats that people are seeing are descended from released pets or whether these are a returning remnant of an original (“native”) population.  A panther is a panther, and whether one specimen is of one subspecies while another individual cat is of a different subspecies is of no concern to a deer or moose calf.  All are members of the same species and are generally able to reproduce with one of the opposite gender from any other subspecies.

The accounts received from eyewitnesses now describe a panther in Aroostook County as far back as 1959.  If any of the eyewitness accounts can be believed, not to mention all of them, then there is a self-sustaining population across eastern Canada south of the St. Lawrence River, and the panthers in that region are unaware of the international boundary and the body of Maine land that nearly separates the provinces of Québec and New Brunswick.

Even though in many eastern states from Alabama to New York to Maine, state wildlife authorities grudgingly admit that there is enormous evidence for the existence of panthers/cougars in the wild, they do not acknowledge breeding populations except in Florida.  (Legislatures and bureaucracies are not required to make the logical leap that for wild animals to exist, they must breed.  That sort of linear thinking is left to scientists and common folk.)  To their credit, Illinois has had two documented kills in recent years and Kentucky has had one, so they both have moved beyond denial.

The eastern subspecies was originally protected under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973.  In Maine it’s described as “extirpated” — wiped out.  However, (quoting National Geographic) “on January 22, the [e]astern cougar subspecies was officially declared extinct in the U.S. and removed from the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

In eastern Canada, the panther is more positively acknowledged and managed accordingly.

WHAT LED TO THIS?
This survey comes about for several reasons.

First, in 2002, I came upon some tracks in the snow while hunting alone east of my home.

Second, in 2003, I saw one up close six miles from my home.

Third, in 1974, while driving not far from the place of the 2003 sighting, I saw one cross Interstate 95 a quarter mile ahead, but too distant to be convincing to anyone else.  (Others simply doubted my eyesight or thought I had seen another animal instead.)

Fourth, at the time of that 1974 sighting, I was a student in the Wildlife Management B.S. program at the University of Maine.  I finished the program and earned that degree in 1977, which was the qualification required to become a state wildlife biologist or game warden.  I sought academic backing to pursue graduate-level study of the panther in Maine but was denied support.  Now, having had a load of personal brushes with them and finally possessing the resources to pursue further study, I’m beginning my graduate “research.”

The survey has no political agenda.  It’s not about environmental activism.  I studied the science of ecology, not the politics of ecology.  It’s not about being pro- or anti-hunting. It’s about science, in the old-fashioned manner of a naturalist studying something dispassionately.  Being as scientific as possible without outside support, it is chiefly an attempt by one qualified individual to investigate the experiences of others who have met up with this rare animal and to make that information available to anyone else interested in the findings.

HOW WE’LL PUBLICIZE THIS SURVEY
1. Use existing connections to announce in publications such as the Northwoods Sporting Journal.
2. Include a link in magazine or newspaper articles.
3. Small posters in barber shops and mom-and-pop stores.
4. Courtesy links at other web sites.
5. Announcements at colleges in the area.
6. Entertain user suggestions for other methods.

HOW WE’LL USE THE DATA
(Recognizing that it may take years to reach a volume of data that can be analyzed…)
1. Publish results in tabular form at this web site, rating reports according to reliability.
2. Map reliable sightings, which may, with enough data, suggest patterns or movements.
3. Offer written updates to various print media from time to time.
4. Do some field investigation in areas with multiple sightings over a brief time span.
5. Make data available to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and other interested agencies.
6. Make data available to interested college programs in the area.
7. Entertain user suggestions for other uses.

OTHER SITES
There are other sites that take a rational approach about the existence of panthers in the eastern USA, including the ones below.

The Eastern Cougar Foundation

Gyekis Forest Management
(link to Pennsylvania research)

Cougar Network

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