Residents, outdoor experts share views
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Recent reports of a mountain lion in the area follow recurrent claims in the last several years of one or more of the large, sleek tan cats hanging out in the Hudson Highlands, typically in state parks or other rugged, wooded areas.
Outdoor life professionals differ on the likelihood. While some cite no credible evidence of mountain lions, others are far less skeptical and one asserts that they’re definitely here.
Besides “mountain lion,” the cats go by various names: cougar, puma, panther, catamount, and more.
Interest in them burgeoned when Sheila Rauch posted on the Philipstown Locals page of Facebook Aug. 9 that her husband “just saw a mountain lion outside his studio in the woods,” off Lane Gate Road, about a mile from Route 301. She said it “walked across a field, over his driveway and into the woods,” was “trotting cat-like,” and was the size of a Labrador dog, with a “tawny color [and] long, long tail. This is just where we walk with the dog on a leash at night”; thus the incident was “extremely scary,” she wrote.
Irene Rofheart Karlen commented on Philipstown Locals the same day that “my husband saw something this afternoon matching that description. It was darting across Fishkill Road, near the North Highlands Fire Department.”
Bull Hill encounter
Another resident, who declined to be identified by name, has a home and business in the Village of Cold Spring. She told The Paper about her experience with a cougar near the village in 2006.
“It was late spring … perhaps sometime in May or June,” during a hike with the family dog, she said. She said she and the dog came “from Nelsonville going over Bull Hill, down toward Little Stony Point. I believe I was south of the old quarry area” and recall “standing on a rock, looking down the hill, when I noticed a golden-brown animal bounding up towards me. Perhaps it was [a] few hundred feet from where I was. It disappeared behind the bushes.”
She called her dog, who was several feet ahead, to return to her, and “waited a few minutes on the rock to be cautious. If it were a dog, I figured it would have come up and said hello to me by then. I moved towards the trail, to my left, to see what would happen. I saw the animal stand up from the bushes, staring at me and moving in clockwise direction as if he/she was circling around the mid-point of our distance; then [it] disappeared again. I stopped and waited a little more. I didn’t know what else to do but continue down the trail. I picked up a stick and made lots of loud noise as I headed down. I kept looking around to make sure we were not being followed. Luckily, we were spared.”
She added that “when I called DEC, to report the sighting, I was told that I must have [been] mistaken; there were no mountain lions in our area.”
The DEC position
The DEC – New York State Department of Environmental Conservation — maintains that no evidence exists of a sustained native mountain lion population in New York State. Nonetheless, it acknowledges that the odd animal, escaping from a private owner or arriving from beyond the state, could show up here or elsewhere. (A mountain lion from South Dakota came through New York and got all the way to Connecticut before being killed by a car in 2011.)
“We don’t have mountain lions in New York state; they’ve been extirpated since the mid-1800s,” DEC spokesperson Wendy Rosenbach told The Paper Aug. 12. “We have not seen any evidence,” such as paw prints, droppings, fur, or other conclusive signs, and “have no evidence of reproducing animals,” such as a mountain lion pair or family. Likewise, “we have no indication” of a lone animal or two wandering through the Hudson Highlands after originating elsewhere, she said.
At the Taconic Outdoor Education Center, part of the New York state parks system, Paul Kuznia said Aug. 19 that no one has ever reported a mountain lion in Fahnestock State Park or other nearby state parks, nor has the education center staff seen any evidence of mountain lions. Moreover, bobcats might be mistaken for mountain lions, he said. “You can be easily fooled.” In general, he said he agrees with the DEC assessment on the presence, or non-presence, of cougars locally.
‘They are here’
Shane Hobel’s perceptions differ. An expert tracker and outdoorsman, Hobel runs the Beacon-based Mountain Scout Survival School. “I have been tracking a pair of mountain lions in this area since 1999,” he told The Paper, Aug. 19. “They are here. They do exist. I’ve been seeing the same mountain lion” — a male — “for years” Hobel said. “The last time I saw this mountain lion was last summer, up on Mount Taurus,” or Bull Hill, behind Cold Spring and Nelsonville. Two of his students spotted the same cougar on Mount Taurus this summer, he added.
So far, he said, “I’ve seen two distinct mountain lions” here. And he wonders about more.
However, he noted, “it’s extremely rare” to see one. “They really are an extremely elusive animal. For the most part, they want to stay away.” Hobel referred to mountain lions as “fantastic” creatures who, among other things, help control an over-abundant deer population. “We should be incredibly grateful they’re here,” he said. Hobel is also reluctant to pinpoint their locations. “If we prove these animals exist, every red-neck, gun-toting idiot out there” will want to try to shoot one, he said.
Tim Corless, a local resident, told The Paper on Monday (Aug. 18) that on an icy day two years ago he fished in the vicinity of Cold Spring’s Upper Reservoir and Foundry Brook, off Lake Surprise Road in North Highlands. A day or so later, a fisherman friend at the same spot discovered cougar paw prints and the clear imprint of an animal in the snow, as if the cat had been “doing a roll … making a perfect snow angel,” Corless said. Efforts to reach his friend were unsuccessful.
Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea — no outdoor novice — similarly said “I do” think it’s possible cougars live here. “My wife swears she saw one two years ago up on East Mountain Road,” near a trail leading to Fahnestock Park, Shea said Aug. 14. “I think if there’s a mountain lion roaming Philipstown, people should be aware of it.”
Hobel believes the DEC and other state agencies know that mountain lions dwell in New York but “the state will always deny it.” Indeed, he suspects “the DEC released them” itself, although again “they will forever deny it.”
‘Mystery and ghosts’
The DEC refutes such notions. “The DEC has never released cougars, despite what you may hear to the contrary,” it declares on its website, also cautioning that numerous Internet pictures of mountain lions purported to have been photographed in New York actually were taken in states like Minnesota and Wyoming.
Peter Salmansohn, a naturalist with the National Audubon Society, spends part of his year in Philipstown. From his summer home in Maine, on Aug. 13 he said the issue of “‘Cougars in New York’ is a political conversation, as is ‘Wolves.’ Why? Primarily because if the state DEC were to confirm their presence, they would then have to ‘protect’ them and put into existence all kinds of rules and land-use regulations, which they are loathe to do. Many conservationists and naturalists have other perspectives on rare predators than the state or federal view.”
At the same time, Salmansohn pointed out that “there are a lot of nuts out there who couldn’t tell a cougar from a large house cat” and “this topic swirls in mystery and ghosts and reports from crackpots as well as sharp-eyed locals.”
Conservation groups with significant roles in Philipstown said they had seen nothing of mountain lions.
“No one has mentioned anything to me, and probably would have,” had anyone seen something, said Katrina Shindledecker, of Friends of Fahnestock and Hudson Highlands State Parks, Aug. 13.
Eric Lind, director of the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary, also said, “I’ve never seen one or any evidence of one” in the marsh or elsewhere.
Representatives of Scenic Hudson and the Hudson Highlands Land Trust made similar comments.