By Joseph Robertia
Sightings are very rare, but growing more common each year. Sometimes it is drivers in Sterling who see them, or sometimes hikers at the Russian River are getting a glimpse. The reports are the same — a feline flash of tawny gray-brown. That’s not necessarily out of the norm in a countryside covered by lynx, but what makes these descriptions unique is that, following behind these cats, is a long tail.
This can be only one animal, but is a species that goes by many names — mountain lion, cougar and puma. Regardless of what it’s called, these large felines for many years have been thought to not be present in Alaska, and especially not found on the Kenai Peninsula. Sightings were regarded as mistaken, or at least questionable, until recently.
“We have been receiving reports of mountain lions for as long as I have been here, but there was a real cluster of sightings in the Skilak Loop area for the past couple of summers. Some of the sightings were from very credible sources and the description provided left little doubt,” said Todd Eskelin, a biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Mountain lions range through 16 states in the Lower 48, as well as throughout western Canada, but they are not officially recognized as existing in Alaska. However, in December 1998, a wolf trapper reportedly snared a mountain lion on south Kupreanof Island, and in November 1989 a mountain lion was shot near Wrangell. There also are numerous sightings across the state annually.
“Yet, to my knowledge, there has yet to be a single irrefutable picture taken, and with cellphone cams you would think there would be at least one blurry one showing a long tail,” Eskelin said.
In the world of science, nothing is official until it can be proven. In cases like these, that means photographic proof, so the refuge has undertaken a project hoping to get an image of a cougar on film.
“We got a deal on a few cheap trail cams and thought we would put them out there and see if we could get a photo of one,” Eskelin said.
The project is utilizing Tasco digital trail cameras, which are affordable enough to allow purchasing several and setting up multiple filming sites, even though the resolution isn’t the greatest.
“Also, the batteries have been lasting for well over a month, so, pretty low effort to check them,” Eskelin said.
Figuring out where to put the cameras to increase the odds of snapping a shot of a savvy cat was a challenge. Most of the literature indicates that, even in areas where mountain lions are prolific, they can still somehow avoid detection.
“From everything I read it is a real crapshoot to get lucky enough to catch one on camera. Most people who got lucky had them out on random trails and just caught them. Nobody had that much luck trying to bait them in with food or scent,” he said.
Instead, Eskelin decided to use a trick taught to youngsters who visit the refuge. He went out and tried to find tracks.
“After the first snowfall I did a fair amount of tracking on Skilak Loop Road to see if there were any
questionable tracks that did not appear to be lynx. I found a few and, combining that with summer sightings, I got a few cameras out at strategic places,” he said.
“We have five to seven cameras out and generally we focused on the eastern half of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area as the majority of the sightings seemed to be in the more mountainous section of Skilak. There were other sightings in other areas, but it seemed like the best approach would be to focus on the area with a higher density of sightings and just try and set out a net and hope we got lucky,” he said.
There haven’t been any mountain lions picked up by the cameras yet, but Eskelin said he is pleased with the diversity of other animals that have been caught on camera.
“To date, there have been no cougars on the cameras, but we have picked up lots of other critters. I was having trouble with the triggers on the camera not going quick enough and getting blank photos. So I switched it over to video and got lots of good clips of lynx and coyotes this winter. Then the bears and other critters started coming out and we got some neat clips of them,” he said.
Some of the images were amazingly crisp and clear, and since the animals were unaware they were being filmed, they are seen carrying out natural behaviors. Wanting to share the image with the general public, Eskelin has begun uploading the videos to the refuge’s Facebook page, and their popularity is growing exponentially.
“It seems to have taken off. I post a new video every Tuesday morning. The first video was seen by 400
people. The last one is at 790 views and counting,” he said. “It seems to be very popular. Our Facebook ‘likes’ have increased by 50 just in the last three weeks, and I’d encourage people to go to the main refuge page and like us. Then they will get the automatic update each Tuesday when a new video is posted. Also, the video clips are only 15 seconds plus the credits, so they shouldn’t overwhelm folks with slower connections.”
If the cameras do eventually capture an image of a mountain lion, Eskelin said there is no way to say for certain if it is the start of the species extending its natural range up from Canada, or if the cat came here by some other means.
“We are starting to experience quite a few climate-related changes on the peninsula and the models indicate a much different picture 100 years from now. Maybe this is one of the changes we might see, but it is just as possible that this is an illegal release or escape of an animal as it is a natural process,” Eskelin said.
If the cat did come here naturally, since their numbers on the peninsula aren’t known, Eskelin said that it is difficult to speculate what the ecological change of a mountain lion population on the peninsula might mean to other species which already exist here. They could prey on some species, or compete against other animals that occupy a similar niche already feeding on the same things.
“Some experts have said they can only exist in areas where there is medium-sized game, like deer. Others have shown that they can subsist on snowshoe hares and red squirrels for quite awhile,” he said. “So, if they, or one, do exist out there, it is much more feasible for them to make it during a hare high cycle, but hare numbers are appearing to dip now and that could make life much more difficult.”