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Thursday, January 10, 2008

In catfight over rare wildlife photo, Newell men stand by mountain lion claim, while DNR insists that the beast is actually a housecat

A Newell man's photo taken in December is not a mountain lion, according to officials of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, where wildlife experts routinely call into question resports from Iowans claiming to have seen the big cats.

Terry Pedersen, who was working on a farm near the Raccoon River two miles south of Newell when friend Mike Heinrich pointed out an unusual animal in a field, stands by his photo, which he says clearly shows a full-grown mountain lion that was about eight feet long from nose to tail.

"We don't have to prove ourselves," said Dale Pedersen, Terry's cousin, who also saw the animal. "We know what we saw."

DNR experts say the animal in the photo is a large house cat.

"After some investigation (in which additional photos taken at the same time/location were provided) and analysis by several of the nation's mountain lion experts, it has been determined that this is a large house cat," said DNR spokesperson Maury Muhm.

Experts took the original photo that has been printed by several newspapers, and others taken at the scene, and zoomed in on the image, he said. The result shows an animal with pointed ears and white fur on its front. The Eastern Cougar Network, which studies sightings, is one source the DNR checked with, officials said.

The images that the DNR looked at were not as clear as the animal appears on the camera itself, according to Dale Pedersen. "I had a good set of binoculars on it too, and it was no house cat. There in no doubt in my mind that it was a mountain lion. No doubt at all."

All three men have been hunters all of their lives, they said, and are very familiar with all of the animals native to the region. Heinrich had previously lived in Idaho, and has experience viewing several of the big cats in the wild.

Pedersen said he took the photo at a distance of about 300 yards, and a house cat would have barely been visible. The animal showed no fear of the men. The ground was hard ice, and the men did not check for tracks. "To be honest, we were so excited, we didn't think of it," Dale said.

If proven, this would be the first human-shot photo of a big cat in the wild in Iowa. One other photo from a motion-detection camera has apparently caught a glimpse of a mountain lion.

DNR officials speculate that a few confirmed reports of mountain lions in Iowa have caused people to be hopeful to spot the beats, which are normally elusive and confined to areas with cover. Sightings of stray golden lab or sheperd dogs, ferel cats, small deer, bocats or coyotes have been mistaken for mountain lions. Several faked photos have also been circulated, skeptical officials say.

"You can see why we question the reports we get. If you or anyone you know thinks they ever see a mountain lion, take a photo if possible of the animal and it's tracks and contact a DNR biologist as soon as possible so they can go to the site and confirm the tracks," Muhm said.

About 1,000 mountain lion sighting have been reported to the DNR since 2000, but almost all have been written off. State officials did stop denying the presence of the big cats in the state in 2001 after evidence of tracks was gathered. A road kill near Harlan that summer, and two subsequent shootings of mountain lion specimens in the state further confirmend the animals - all pointing to wild western populations as the source of the cats.

Mountain lions can usually be identified in sightings by their powerful shoulders, which do not resemble those of a dog or housecat, by its thick tail of up to three feet in length, and untufted, rounded off ears.

Bobcats run about three feet in length and around 25 pounds, while the mountain lion, also known as cougar, can grow to 7-9 feet in length and 90-160 pounds in weight.

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