`Sightings' abound, but park's cougar remains only a legend

Maryland officials have found no proof at Patapsco Valley

June 19, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

For years, visitors to Patapsco Valley State Park have sensed the presence of a stealthy resident: a cougar. Dozens -- including a well-known and well-respected naturalist -- swear they have seen the animal. Others say they have seen tracks in the mud by the river.

The cougar rumors have traveled far and wide -- as far and wide, perhaps, as a cougar would have to travel to get to the park in the first place.

"People always see the animal stalking something, and they always see it from a car," said Richard McIntire, a state Department of Natural Resources spokesman, adding that reports of cougar sightings have come "at least annually" for the past 10 to 12 years.

The wildlife staff has investigated but has never found "valid proof," McIntire said.

"We'll go out, and it turns out to be some other animal. They'll have some very large dog print or something," he said.

Still, reports of a cougar in the park have traveled as surely and stealthily as a cat stalking its prey. And those who believe in the cougar worry about the proposed Patapsco Heritage Greenway, which would bring more people to the park and make it harder for a cougar or any animal to keep a low profile.

Pinning down specifics about the alleged cougar is difficult: when tracks or the animal were seen, who saw them. Most are wary of talking about sightings on the record. Some fear the ridicule of park rangers. Others don't want to attract potential hunters. And, although people talk of friends and acquaintances who they say have seen the cougar -- or at least tracks in the mud -- they never give out names.

In their persistence and anonymity, the cougar sightings have something of a mythical quality and might even be considered a piece of Patapsco Valley State Park folklore. But among those who swear they have seen the cougar is a respected environmentalist, Steve Stover, and if anyone would know a cougar when he saw one, Stover would.

Patapsco River chairman for the Audubon Society of Central Maryland, Stover has spent more time on the Patapsco River than just about anyone and has written numerous articles about it. He has fished the river since he was 10, walked it, canoed it, studied it and written about it. At a recent Sierra Club meeting, he showed slides and talked about it for two hours, holding the audience enraptured.

Listeners seemed especially enthralled when he said he had seen a cougar in the park about six years before near a major road, although he had no pictures to prove it.

A full-grown cougar would be hard to miss. The tawny cats weigh 80 to 200 pounds and have strong jaws and teeth. The nocturnal creatures live in caves and can leap up to 18 feet.

Stover did not mention the rumor that DNR officials placed cougars in the park to take care of the deer overpopulation.

McIntire denied that, saying, "I've never heard that. That would be a severe dereliction of duty and completely inappropriate."

He paused, then added, "Either that, or somebody has their kitty on steroids."

McIntire said a cougar could wander into Maryland from wilderness areas in Pennsylvania but that as far as DNR officials know, "there should be no wild large cats roaming anywhere in Maryland."

Cal DuBrock, director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's bureau of wildlife management in Harrisburg, said there should be no wild large cats in Pennsylvania.

"We have no confirmed reports of cougar in the state," he said.

It is unlikely the cougar would have come from Virginia or West Virginia. Officials in those states say cougars were killed off by farmers and hunters in the early part of the century.

In Colonial times, McIntire said, the woods were full of cougars, also known as pumas or mountain lions, but they disappeared as the area became more settled. If a large cat was found in the park now, he said, it would probably be trapped and shipped out, "particularly if he was hanging out and doing damage and threatening public safety."

Stover said he also has seen coyotes in the park, and McIntire said that every year there are several reported coyote sightings, which he believes are not nearly as far-fetched.

"Coyote are making a comeback in the state of Maryland," he said, adding that there have even been several python sightings in the park, but only because pet owners release them there.

"Usually," McIntire said, "they succumb to the elements."

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