Sunday, March 25, 2007

More than Just Ivory-bills in the Choctawhatchee

Like Tom Nelson, I’ve been reading through Geoffrey E. Hill’s Ivorybill Hunters, an account of his search for, and self-proclaimed discovery of, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida Panhandle. Hill led a team of students and research scientists from Auburn University and the University of Windsor that scoured the bottomland hardwood forests along the Choctawhatchee in the winter of 2005-2006 for evidence of Ivory-bills. About half-way through the book (p. 113), I happened upon this incredible passage, which relates discussions of team members assembled around the campfire at their main camp (“Beavertown”) on the evening of January 4, 2006:
Brian [Rolek] and Tyler [Hicks] also told us that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers weren’t the only supposedly extinct animal they had seen. A few days before, when they were exploring the small island at the mouth of Bruce Creek, they had seen a cougar, also called a mountain lion, jump a water channel and disappear into the forest. A small population of cougars [known to science as the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi] hangs on by a thread in the Everglades area, but that’s 600 miles away. Cougars wee supposed to have been extirpated from the entire eastern United States except extreme southern Florida. I was amazed that Brian and Tyler had seen a cougar just a few hundred yards from camp.

‘Until we get definitive evidence of ivorybills, let’s just keep that cougar sighting to ourselves,’ I suggested. ‘If we start finding too many extinct animals, we might have trouble getting people to believe us.’
For a perspective on just how unusual a confirmed sighting of a free-ranging wild cougar in the Choctawhatchee would be, refer to the Cougar Network’s map of “confirmed” cougar sightings in the southeastern U.S. Also note that the Cougar Network, unlike the Choctawhatchee team, has established rigorous criteria for gauging the credibility of reported sightings of their subject.

I’m surprised that Hill simply expressed amazement at Rolek and Hicks’s reported sighting of cougar rather than downright incredulity or skepticism. Which seems more plausible, that Roleck and Hicks spotted a cougar/panther, or a bobcat, the latter being a common denizen of swamps along Florida's Gulf Coast. A more objective or introspective supervisor might have had cause to suspect the credibility of his two field assistants at that point. This is simply the most glaring of several examples of apparent naiveness on the part of Hill.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ouch.

March 25, 2007 11:47 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

People have reported mountain lions in Connecticut.-Most reports are suspected to be people who have seen a Bobcat and mistaken them for Moutain Lions.

People who follow up on these reports have at times found stuff-(forgot the correct term)- left behind that is consistent with a Mountain Lion. The question is then whether it was an escaped exotic pet.-

I'm always interested in animals that may be expanding outside their normal range. Only over the last decade or so, Moose and Bear have moved in to Connecticut

-Wolves moving in to Northern Maine and New Hampshire is another possibility that is currently being researched.

March 25, 2007 3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting.

You can fool some of the people all of the time...

March 26, 2007 9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haven't "released" cougars been reported by now in all eastern states? It's a big problem, especially for authenticating movements of natural cougars. Moreover, what are the movements that have been reported for juvenile cougars--something like 500 miles? I think the mistake may well be not whether or not they saw a cougar, but in assuming that it was from the southern Florida population...not that I would rule out this possibility, either.

March 26, 2007 9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no idea what they saw, and the last thing they need is to be reporting more hard to believe stuff. However, a cougar in the Florida panhandle is not implausible at all. The Texas population has been expanding east along the gulf coast for years and there is no reason to think it won't eventually reoccupy eastern Florida. I think a western cat is far more likely than a wandering Florida Panther.

That said, it is really nearing put up or shut time for this whole enterprise.

March 27, 2007 10:20 AM  

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