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Game officials question photo

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The photo has been making the rounds on Facebook, the grainy image showing what appears to be a large cat-like creature captured by a game camera around Todds Tavern in Spotsylvania County.

Is it a cougar, also known as a mountain lion or puma, as the post suggests? Or something else?

It’s almost certainly something else, says Rick Reynolds, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who looks into cougar reports from across the state. And it turns out that supposed sightings are not all that rare.

Reynolds, who works out of the Verona office, saw the purported Spotsylvania photo, taken in September, and showed it to another department biologist.

Because of the lighting and angle, “It’s difficult to analyze, and would benefit from other photos from the same camera in the same location,” he said.

Another issue with the image: “It’s hard to get a perspective of the size of this particular animal.” Specifically, there’s no clear clue to determine how large it is, relative to the grass and trees in the background.

“Another thing that caught our attention was the lack of a tail.” A cougar’s tail is about two-thirds the length of its body.

“You’re not catching much of a tail there at all,” he said, which might suggest that it’s a bobcat, which roam Virginia woods.

And Reynolds noted that part of the picture appeared to be cut off.

Reynolds typically gets about two cougar reports a month, and has been looking into them for about a dozen years.

Some photos he’s seen are convincing, and were actually cougars, he said. But it turns out the photos were taken in the West, where they still roam.

“I got a photo taken by someone who worked for a railway company over by Covington” in western Virginia, Reynolds said. It was supposedly taken in July, and there was snow in the background.

Another image shows a man with a dead cougar on the floor in a garage or a shed.

“But in the background, you see these deer racks that are obviously mule deer” native to the West, not [white-tailed deer] native to Virginia.

Reynolds says cougars are migrating eastward, and have been sighted east of the Mississippi.

In July 2011, a cougar found dead along a highway in Connecticut was traced to wild mountain lions in Illinois through DNA tests. It was the first one reported in that state in more than 100 years.

The migrating animals, Reynolds says, “for the most part are juvenile males being driven out of [their] territories.”

Reynolds says all reports here are taken seriously because “there is a potential for a cougar to show up in the state.”

There are mountain lions in zoos around the state.

“We pick up all kinds of wildlife that is not native to Virginia,” Reynolds said, such as alligators and pythons.

They end up in the wild, or someone’s backyard, when owners tire of them, or they escape.

The last cougar report, he says, came out of Marion, off Interstate 81 in Smyth County, in October.

According to the VDGIF website, there have been 121 possible sightings since 1970, but none has been confirmed. Most of those were in Shenandoah National Park and in the Bedford, Amherst and Nelson County region.

The last eastern mountain lions are believed to have disappeared by the 1940s, according to the Eastern Cougar Foundation.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

ABOUT COUGARS

Once the most widely distributed land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, cougars have been eliminated in most of their native habitat. Only western cougars still live in large enough numbers to maintain breeding populations, and they live on wild lands in the western United States and Canada.

The service’s Northeast Region website has compiled its own list of “Cougar Tales” from the east. Read them at: fws.gov/northeast/ecougar/

–U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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