June 28, 2011

Augusta man sure he saw cougar in Dresden

By Craig Crosby ccrosby@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

It happened in a flash, but Ken Petersen knows what he saw.

It wasn't a lynx, or a dog or a deer, Petersen is certain the beast that crossed his path in Dresden earlier this month was a cougar.

"I know the difference between lynxes and mountain lions," Petersen said. "I don't care if they say they've been extinct since yesterday. I know what I saw."

It happened around 6 a.m., on June 17 as Petersen, 55, was driving from his Augusta home to work at Bath Iron Works. As Petersen neared Here's the Scoop ice-cream stand he noticed an animal approaching the road from the left at a sprint.

"It crossed the road directly in front of me," Petersen said. "It was as if I saw it in slow motion."

The cat was light brown and had a long tail, Petersen said.

"The muscles were literally rippling as it ran," he said.

The cat had the rounded face of a mountain lion, Petersen said. The animal, which Petersen estimated weighed between 80 and 100 pounds, was about 5 feet long and low to the ground.

"I probably got within 20 feet," he said. "I was looking directly at it as it ran past."

The cat leapt across the ditch and into a field. Petersen watched as the tall grass rustled apart as the cat continued through the field.

"It was magnificent," Petersen said. "I'm still excited about it."

Wally Jakubas of Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife investigates reports of cougar sightings. Jakubas has not had a chance to speak to Petersen, but said there are a number of creatures that could easily be mistaken for a mountain lion.

"I don't want to say anyone's wrong, but the farther away that animal is, it's more difficult to judge size," Jakubas said.

But, Jakubas said, the greater Augusta area is one of the areas with the most reported cougar sightings. That has led to speculation that there may be someone illegally releasing captive cougars in the area.

"As far as we know there is no self-sustaining cougar population in the state," Jakubas said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year officially declared the eastern mountain lion extinct. Jakubas said the eastern sub-species designation was based on the discovery of five skulls. The cougars that once roamed Maine's woods might well be part of the larger North American species that continues to populate the western states.

"We're still very interested," Jakubas said, adding his office averages a cougar report every couple of weeks.

Jakubas recently returned from 10 days vacation and there are three more reports on his desk, including Petersen's, another at the mile 99 marker on Interstate 95 just south of Augusta and a third in the Bangor area that was actually captured by a hunting camera. The cat caught on film looks like a cougar, Jakubas agreed, but he believes once biologists nail down the scale of measurement they will mostly likely determine it is just a house cat.

Without the animal itself of a hair sample to look for DNA it is difficult to know for certain whether the spotted creature is a cougar.

"The person makes their best judgment on what they think the animal is," Jakubas said. "A lot has to be put together because it's extremely easy to mistake a cougar for another animal."

But Petersen, who grew up next to a zoo and used frequently to visit the captive cougars, remains unmoved. He is hoping others in the Dresden area who might have seen the cat will be persuaded to share their stories.

"I am 1 million percent sure that's what I saw and I would love to go out and find out more about it," Petersen said.

Craig Crosby -- 621-5642

ccrosby@centralmaine.com

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