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In The Adirondacks

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Notes from the North Country

Federal extinction status won't end cougar debate

I've been within 25 feet of a coyote on the Northville-Lake Placid Trail and eight feet of a loon on Cranberry Lake -- both times we surprised each other -- so I've had some Adirondack wildlife experiences.

But I've yet to encounter a mountain lion deep in the Adirondack woods. But I've got a very knowledgeable friend who thinks he might have seen one on a rural highway, and there have been hundreds of sightings -- of something -- over the years.

Indeed, there's sometimes been a pretty vigorous debate. Photos that could have been taken anywhere get circulated on the Internet as proof. There are conspiracy theories: Shadowy agencies release them to control deer populations, keeping those deer from being taken by hunters. (Note I didn't say the conspiracy has to make sense.)

Officially, the Department of Environmental Conservation says they haven't been anywhere in New York since the last confirmed shooting in the Adirondacks more than a century ago. A DEC wildlife biologist worked pretty hard to convince my friend what he'd seen had to have been a bobcat.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it plans to declare the tawny deep-woods carnivore extinct throughout the Eastern U.S., outside the state of Florida. Until the announcement, the lions -- variously known as cougars, catamounts, pumas and panthers -- had been on the endangered species list, despite lack of physical evidence they remained in their historic range.

"Reports of cougars observed in the wild examined during the review process described cougars of other subspecies, often South American subspecies, that had been held in captivity and had escaped or been released to the wild, as well as wild cougars of the western United States subspecies that had migrated eastward to the Midwest," Fish and Wildlife officials said in their announcement.

DEC has also used the released captive explanation when questioned too closely on the matter.

I don't expect the Fish and Wildlife decision to end the great Adirondack debate. Nor to do I expect to stop looking.

Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter in Saratoga County.

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