Is Puma Playing Cat and Mouse in East? : Wildlife: Cougars were thought to be virtually extinct in the Northeast, but sightings persist. One recent report involved a mother and two cubs. Experts to debate issue.

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Are those real panthers or ghosts that people are seeing in the Northeast?

The big cat, renowned for its stealth and reclusiveness, once ranged the continent but now lives in abundant numbers only in some Western states and Canada. There is a small, barely viable population of about 50 in the Florida Everglades.

Everywhere east of the Mississippi it is treated by federal and state wildlife officials as an endangered species on the verge of extinction, if not totally vanished. The last authenticated killings of native panthers in the Northeast occurred in the 1930s. Since then, there has not even been a confirmed road kill.

But over the years, hundreds of sightings have been reported of animals that witnesses swear were panthers. And wildlife biologists give some of the sightings serious credence, although they generally say the animal was probably an escaped or abandoned pet. People bring in panthers from the West and, with permits, keep them as pets.

The panther, America's largest predator, also goes under the name of puma, cougar, catamount and mountain lion.

True or false, the sightings will get unprecedented attention at a gathering of biologists, ecologists, historians and wildlife enthusiasts at Gannon University in Erie, Pa., next month.

The June 3-5 conference is billed as "a meeting of those interested in the history, mystery, current status and future of the Eastern Puma, the ghost cat of North America." A key theme is whether the animal survived in the Canadian wilderness and is now returning to former haunts.

For believers in the return of native panthers, perhaps the most significant sighting occurred only a few months ago--on Feb. 4--in the wilds of northern Maine near the Quebec border. A man reported seeing, through the telescopic lens of his rifle, a large, long-tailed cat with two cubs.

The sighting was investigated by two game wardens, who found tracks and photographed them. A state wildlife biologist, Ken Elowe, then identified the photographs as those of panther tracks.

"The fact that it (the panther) had some young ones makes it a more interesting sighting," Elowe said in a phone interview. The presence of a mother and cubs would suggest a breeding population rather than strays.

A baby panther was shot near Lake Desolation, N.Y., in January by a hunter who was quoted as saying he didn't know what the animal was. A state wildlife official said he surmised that the animal was an abandoned pet.

Aside from official investigations, such incidents and sightings are compiled and analyzed by wildlife enthusiasts like Theodore B. Reed of Exeter, N.H., a retired manufacturer who heads a conservationist group called Friends of the Eastern Panther.

Reed says he became an "instant believer" when he saw what he is certain was a panther jump across a wooded road in front of his car in Nova Scotia in 1974. In a phone interview, he said that nowadays "there is no doubt in my mind that panthers are regularly crossing the Maine-New Brunswick border in both directions."

Reed said he is convinced the panther never died out in the Northeast but withdrew deep into the Canadian wilderness during the deforestation and bounty hunting of earlier times. He says it is re-emerging now as a result of reforestation and an abundance of white-tailed deer, its favored prey.

Reed says he will address the Gannon University conference on the need to establish an international range embracing U.S. and Canadian land that "would offer the panther a secure and friendly haven."

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