Mountain lion sightings are reported every year in Alaska, but the cats are so rare in the state that accounts often take on the mythical quality of Bigfoot sightings.
Reports have come from as far north and west as the Kenai Peninsula and the Palmer area, but the most credible accounts come from Southeast Alaska, which is adjacent to known populations in neighboring British Columbia.
"We get sporadic reports, maybe two or three a year," said state wildlife biologist Rich Lowell of Petersburg.
"Usually there's one report, then word gets out and there's a rash of sightings that are not substantiated. It's almost like sasquatch," he said, referring to the legendary big, hairy human-like creatures of the Northwest.
Alaska has always been considered to be outside the lions' range, but with mountain lion populations increasing in many western states and Canada, that could change. In the Lower 48, mountain lions are dispersing into Nebraska, the Dakotas and Minnesota from neighboring states.
The cats are rare in northern British Columbia, but biologists estimate there are about 3,500 mountain lions in Southern B.C., and Vancouver Island has one of the highest densities of mountain lions in the world. Although it's unlikely a breeding population is established in Alaska, there's evidence the cats are making forays into the state.
In December 1998 a wolf trapper reportedly snared a mountain lion on South Kupreanof Island, and in November 1989 a mountain lion was shot near Wrangell. These are the only documented accounts of mountain lions killed in Alaska.
State wildlife biologist Neil Barten of Juneau said there was good evidence that a mountain lion was active in the Snetttisham area south of Juneau in the summer of 2000, and a state trooper reported watching a mountain lion in Skagway in 2002.
There have been a handful of credible sightings in the Meyers Chuck area of the Cleveland Peninsula in recent years, said Boyd Porter, the state game biologist in Ketchikan.
"The Cleveland is a pretty wild, unpopulated area between Wrangell and Ketchikan," Porter said. "They could easily come down through the Unuk River drainage from Canada. Populations in British Columbia and elsewhere are increasing, and consequently you are more likely than ever to see dispersal, and maybe see them where we haven't ever seen them before."
Larry Lewis, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna, said there have been occasional sightings reported in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, but nothing in recent years and nothing that has been confirmed, to his knowledge. A spate of lion sightings in the mid-'90s around Cooper Landing turned out to be a big yellow dog - and biologists have found that dogs probably are the culprits in other sightings as well.
Often lion sightings turn out to be lynx - for good reason. Lynx are notorious travelers and can be found throughout Alaska. They are better adapted for cold weather, with short tails, heavy fur coats, ear tufts and snowshoe-like paws. In the winter of 2001 a Palmer resident reported a mountain lion was eating his domestic rabbits. The area biologist collected hair samples, and DNA analysis revealed the cat was a lynx.
Also known as cougars, mountain lions average 100 to 150 pounds and are three to five times bigger than lynx. Bobcats, the lynx's small cousin, barely range north of the U.S.-Canadian border.
Ed Crain served as the Petersburg-area biologist in the 1990s. He looked into the possibility that the cougar killed in Wrangell could have been an escaped or released pet. It's a plausible scenario, as about 12,000 mountain lions, tigers and other large cats are kept as exotic pets in the United States. DNA tests, however, indicated the cougar probably came from wild stock.
Crain, who still lives in Petersburg, said it's not surprising that a cougar would make its way down the Stikine River from established populations in British Columbia. He said fishers - housecat-size cousins to the mink - have recently shown up in the Juneau area, which was previously considered to be outside their range. Moose also have been moving into new areas of Central Southeast and are increasing in number.
"There are mule deer and elk in the (Upper Stikine), and I can see mountain lions moving down searching for deer, one at a time drifting in, then mating," Crain said. "In another 50 years - it's just speculation, but I could see a breeding population establish in Southeast Alaska."
Lowell, the Petersburg biologist, said trappers and hunters have contacted him wanting to know if they could harvest a mountain if they did see one. The answer is no; there is no season for the animals in Alaska. The two cougars that were killed were turned over to the state.
Lowell has heard concerns about the danger posed by cougars. Alaskans should not be worried about cougar attacks, he said. Pet dogs in America kill more people each year (about 16) than cougars have killed in the past century. Dogs bite 4.5 million people annually, sending 800,000 people to seek medical treatment. Despite a few high-profile attacks in recent years, the cats pose little real threat to people.
Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For comments or questions, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about Alaska's wildlife, see http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/pubs/wildlife_news/index.htm.