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News
3/6/2005

Mountain lion may be prowling in Homer

COUGAR: The only confirmed reports in Alaska have come from Southeast.

By TOM KIZZIA
Anchorage Daily News

HOMER -- Ever since he saw the huge cat two weeks ago in the alders behind his home, Howard Grevemberg has been carrying a shotgun. He provides an armed escort in the driveway when his wife leaves for work before dawn. He won't let his 105-pound dog, Jack, out the door. Not that Jack seems eager to go these days. Jack has seen the big cat too.

Grevemberg says there's a cougar in the woods around his home, near the end of a gravel road high on the bluff behind Homer. He says he's seen it four times -- the last a week ago, eyes glinting in a flashlight beam by his fuel tank.

"I won't walk this road anymore until I know that damn thing is dead," said Grevemberg, 53, a big man with long, dark hair.

There have been several other mountain lion reports around Homer in the last few months, including a man who says he watched his dog get dragged away. The town's response has been skeptical, if watchful -- and maybe, in some cases, even a little hopeful.

Department of Fish and Game biologists remain curious but unconvinced. Tracks in the snow have been half-melted and inconclusive. In the past, they say, there have been similar elusive reports of mountain lions in other parts of Alaska outside Southeast -- Yakutat, Cooper Landing, the Mat-Su, even Nome -- but none were ever confirmed.

"It would be a pretty amazing range extension," said Thomas McDonough, an assistant area biologist for Fish and Game. The cougar's northern range is believed to end in southern British Columbia.

It was big news in 1989 when a cougar was shot in Southeast near Wrangell. Nine years later, a 150-pounder was snared on an island west of Wrangell by a trapper who thought he had seen tracks of a wolf jump 20 feet. The only other accepted Alaska sightings are also in Southeast.

McDonough said the first report in Homer came in October. A flagger on a road construction project called to say she'd seen a mountain lion run across the road chasing a badger. Badgers are even more southerly creatures.

"I told her I was more interested in the badger," McDonough said.

The next report was harder to file away. Louie Strutz, 77, said he had just come home from lunch when his Shih Tzu jumped out of the pickup truck and ran up the slope toward the woods, barking. Strutz said from about a hundred yards he watched a big, long-tailed cat emerge from the trees, cross a snow patch, swat the toy dog with its paw and grab it in its jaws.

"The dog let out a bloodcurdling scream, and the cat picked him up," said Strutz, a lifelong Alaskan. "I don't know nothing about mountain lions or things like that, but that was a huge animal."

Strutz said he went up the hill to look for his dog and found only a patch of blood. He was unable to follow the predator's trail very far.

Grevemberg said he first saw the big cat when he stepped behind the house with his dog. He described the color as brindled -- dark streaks in a lighter fur. He didn't know what it was at first -- a lynx? -- until he saw the long tail flick free.

Fish and Game was out at Grevemberg's place last week looking at tracks -- and carrying a rifle. They say they are paying attention and urge people to have cameras ready to provide documentation.

"I don't want to sound flippant. It could very well be," McDonough said. "Especially when you have people who've seen it multiple times."

It's possible an illegal pet mountain lion escaped or was let loose, McDonough said. Less likely, he said, would be that a cougar had crossed Alaska from the east, perhaps following blacktail deer nosing from Prince William Sound toward Cook Inlet.

Cougars, as the mountain lions are generally known in the Pacific Northwest, tend to be wary of humans. They generally hunt along long loops of territory, preferring deer but dining omnivorously, stealthily leaving rumors in their trail.

"None of the cats possess enough lung capacity for grueling runs," the writer Edward Hoagland said of them. "They depend upon shock tactics, bursts of speed, sledge-hammer leaps, strong collarbones for hitting power, and shearing dentition, whereas wolves employ all the advantages of time in killing their quarry, as well as the numbers and gaiety of the pack."

Around 1970, when Hoagland wrote "Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion" for the New Yorker magazine, cougar numbers were down to about 5,000 in the United States. Today there may be that many in California alone. Since bounties were eliminated and hunting was scaled back, mountain lions have made a comeback, at least in the West. Attacks on humans, though still rare, have been on the rise as housing developments and recreationalists push farther into wild habitat.

In Homer, McDonough said, the state could set traps for the unseen animal but they'd be more likely to catch neighborhood dogs. If the animal proves to be a real danger, a major response would be warranted, as it would for a dangerous bear or moose, he said.

The skepticism that has greeted their story so far is frustrating to the Grevembergs, who say "bureaucratic red tape" seems to be getting in the way of biologists hiring trackers or doing something.

"What does it have to do? Drag a kid off waiting for a school bus?" Howard Grevemberg said. "Like I have nothing better to do than start a rumor about a damn cat."

His wife, Cece, said she's called the mayor and is ready to call the governor to get action.

The Grevembergs say they like wildlife and don't hunt. Howard had to borrow the shotgun. He said he's going to abide by the law and not try to chase the animal down.

"Basically, I'm just waiting for it to step on my property," he said.

Meanwhile, they are nervous. As if Alaskans don't already have enough competition in the woods at the top of the food chain.

"But a bear doesn't stalk an animal," Cece Grevemberg said last week as burgers sizzled in her airport cafe. "This one's sitting there looking at my dog like it's a lamb chop."

Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at tkizzia@adn.com or in Homer at 907-235-4244.