A female mountain lion at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray walks around her new home, a state-of-the-art exhibit at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray on May 4, 2012, the exhibit's opening day. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

Last week, I shared a story about a hunter who had an encounter — her second in recent years — with what she’s certain was a mountain lion.

And as expected, it didn’t take long before BDN readers began sounding off. The idea of mountain lions in Maine — or the refusal by some to believe it’s possible — tends to get folks revved up, we’ve learned.

Among the more flamboyant online comments was from a reader who seems convinced that there’s a conspiracy among state wildlife officials to deny the presence of cougars at all costs.

“No one in [the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife] wants to acknowledge that we have these man killing cats here,” the commenter wrote. “It will [create] fodder for the antis in their quest to end all hunting and trapping in Maine. Shoot, shovel and shut up.”

[Hunter in Levant says she saw a mountain lion, then shot a deer the cougar had mauled]

Earlier this week, I sought help from Walter Jakubas, the DIF&W’s mammal group leader, in getting to the bottom of the latest reported cougar sighting. Jakubas has investigated dozens of mountain lion reports in the state, and has made no secret in his dealings with me that he’d love to receive some indisputable evidence that the big cats walk among us.

You read that right: The DIF&W biologist who investigates many of these cases isn’t saying that the big cats aren’t here. He just wants proof.

(A personal note from me to conspiracy theorists who are sure that cougar sightings are being discounted for no good reason: Your diatribe grows tiresome. The state isn’t out to get you. Neither are the feds. Get a game camera photo, or other hard evidence, and take it to your local wildlife biologist. They’re waiting for you).

Jakubas seemed to agree that the predator in the recent Levant sighting was likely a cat, but hesitated to call it a mountain lion without that elusive proof. I sent him a couple of photos that the hunter had shared, and asked him to look at both scratch marks on the deer’s shoulder and puncture wounds that showed up when the hunter skinned the deer.

“Before getting to the pictures you sent, I think it is helpful to keep in mind that bobcat commonly prey on deer, and in some jurisdictions they can be one of their most important predators,” Jakubas wrote in reply. “I would agree that the deer was probably killed by a felid, but wounds captured in the picture are not conclusive. The scratch on the hide could have been made by either a bobcat or cougar.”

Let me emphasize three pieces of his response: Could have … bobcat … or cougar.

The most adamant conspiracy theorists would have you believe that Maine biologists would never, ever admit that a cougar might possibly be walking among us. As Jakubas proves in his reply, he’s perfectly willing to consider that possibility. But he wants better evidence.

“The wounds in the flesh, IF, they are puncture wounds made by canines (and not claw wounds) would be more likely have come from a bobcat,” Jakubas wrote, explaining that that by comparing the distance between the wounds in the photo and the known width between a cougar’s teeth, it seems unlikely that a mountain lion inflicted the damage.

“I have a cougar skull in my office. The lower canines are closer together than the upper canines. There is 1.5 inches between the points of the two teeth. In the picture the distance looks like a thumb width,” Jakubas wrote.

Jakubas said he wishes the DIF&W had been contacted and had a chance to investigate the sighting. As that didn’t happen, he’s hoping that over the next few months, folks in the Levant area keep their eyes peeled for more evidence.

“If it is a cougar, perhaps someone will see the tracks or another deer kill this winter,” he wrote.

And rest assured, biologists check out reported mountain lion sightings, no matter what the conspiracy theorists will tell you. It’s just that the evidence provided is typically lacking in scientific precision, or points in an entirely different direction.

Maybe the “mountain lion” is a bobcat. Sometimes, it’s a coyote. And other times … it’s just a garden variety kitty cat.

“We had a sighting of an all-white cougar last week,” Jaukubas wrote. “The regional biologist investigated the site; as I suspected the height of the grass revealed the animal was a house cat that created a great optical illusion.”

As for me? I’m among those who think a few mountain lions are roaming the Maine forests. But I’m still among those waiting for evidence I can sink my teeth into.

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...