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February 1, 2006

Black cougar more talk than fact

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Game Warden Brady May says anyone who tells you the Oklahoma Wildlife Department releases mountain lions to help control the deer population has a very limited understanding of wildlife management in this state.

“I’ve heard that one for years – as long as I’ve been a game warden,” said May. “And it’s just about as funny a joke as I’ve ever heard. The department has never owned a cat, let alone released it into the wild.”

Still, May gets quite a few reports about mountain lion sightings in northeastern Oklahoma – especially the black ones.

“Never in the history of the United States has there ever been, in captivity or in the wild, a documented black mountain lion,” he said. “But we had a wildlife expo at Guthrie last year, and one of our guys had a skins and skulls display. He put up a billboard with a map of Oklahoma and a sign that said ‘report your mountain lion sightings here.’”

May said visitors were invited to stick colored pins (the color of the pin corresponding to the color of the mountain lion sighted) on the map. The results, he said, were not surprising to the game wardens at the expo.

“They ran out of pins, and the black pins ran out first,” he said. “There wasn’t another place on the state of Oklahoma to put a pin.”

May said several species do have melanism, a genetic variation that causes some animals to have darker fur than normal. But that variation, he said, doesn’t exist in mountain lions.

So what are people seeing?

“There are about 700 to 750 black bears in Oklahoma,” said May. “It’s very possible they’re seeing a bear.”

May doesn’t doubt that people who report black mountain lion sightings have seen something. But he added that, at summer camps sponsored by the wildlife department for Oklahoma youngsters, game wardens conduct a little experiment to demonstrate just how tricky the senses can be.

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