But over the decades since, Adirondackers and other people across the eastern US have reported seeing hundreds of the big cats. That has led to a furious debate among scientists, naturalists and everyday citizens. As Brian Mann reports, some people are convinced that mountain lions still haunt the Adirondack woods. Others say cougars have already entered into the region's folklore.
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One day in 1997, Ken Kogut was driving down a highway in the New York's Adirondack Mountains and he saw something that shouldn’t have been there.
"A mountain lion, bounds out into the middle of the road and stops dead," he recalled.
The reason this cougar sighting is so remarkable is that Kogut is a top biologist with the state conservation department. If anyone is qualified to know what a mountain lion looks like, this is the guy.
"It looked at me and then with one bound it literally cleared the other lane, cleared the shoulder of the road, and anded in the ditch. And last I saw it was running south with a long black tail tip."
The cougar was big, Kogut says, nearly three feet at the shoulder. A male can weigh up to 140 pounds.
It turns out, mountain lion sightings are tantalizingly common in the Northeast – and many of them, like Kogut’s encounter, are almost impossible to discount.
Heidi Kretser, with the Wildlife Conservation Society did a study a few years back and found that there have been roughly 180 cougar encounters in New York state alone since the 1960s.
"I think probably thirty percent of them had a higher quality of accuracy, in terms of — it seemed like they actually saw something that looked very much like a cougar," she found.
For some naturalists like Peter O'Shea, the conclusion is obvious. In wild parts of the Northeast, some of these big cats must have survived.
"I think that there definitely are mountain lions, cougars, whatever you want to call them, out there in the Adirondacks."
There is a big community of mountain lion enthusiasts across the Northeast convinced that the animals still exist in breeding populations. Bo Ottman is a landscaper in Connecticut who founded an organization in 2007 called Cougars of the Valley.
He says the Federal government knows that cougars remain in the Northeast. He thinks wildlife agencies don’t want the hassle and expense of caring for the animals.
"I think they just want to put it behind them. If they take the eastern cougar off the endangered list, that means they don’t have to protect them, they don’t have to spend the money."
Mark McCullough is the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s lead expert on eastern cougars.
He says the status of eastern mountain lions has been an emotional issue ever since the animals were placed on the endangered species list in the 1970s.
"That's still been an open and hotly debated question since then, as to whether they truly still exist in some areas of the east or not. So that's what we set out to try to answer."
The vast majority of scientists and naturalists – including McCullough — don’t think the animals survived in the wild.
He spent five years surveying wildlife data from twenty-one eastern states, poring over more than five hundred accounts of cougar sightings.
"All these lines of evidence suggest that cougars do turn up from time to time, but the eastern cougar is extinct," he concluded.
During the late 18 and early 1900s there was just too much hunting pressure and too many forests were cut down by loggers. Biologist Ken Kogut says white tail deer, the main food source for mountain lions, were also hunted nearly to extinction.
"The habitat didn’t exist," he points out. "Not only that, the prey base for mountain lions was essentially gone. So for me to think well, geez, there was a remnant population – I just don’t believe it."
Kogut thinks the animal he saw that day in the western Adirondacks was an exotic pet, released by its owners after it grew too big and dangerous. And even many mountain lion junkies say proof that the big cats survive is just too thin.
Katherine Goldman in Fall River, Massachusetts, hosts a website that collects cougar sightings. She describes them as sort of like modern folk tales – fascinating and fun to read, but not scientific.
"I keep telling people when they write in and tell me these lovely stories about the animals that they've sighted, put up a trail cam and send me the pictures. And the only pictures I've ever gotten were of a pair of foxes in someone's backyard that they were claiming were mountain lions."
But even scientists who are convinced that mountain lions are gone from the woods of the Northeast, admit to being puzzled by all these sightings. Heidi Kretser, with the Wildlife Conservation Society, describes the frequency and accuracy of the accounts as "weird."
"As we were pulling together the information and thinking about what people were seeing out on the landscape, one of my co-workers suggested, you know, 'People often see ghosts, so maybe we're seeing ghosts of lions out there on the landscape.'"
In a way, the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mark McCullough agrees. He thinks people see mountain lions so often because — unlike our ancestors, who hunted the big cats as vermin — many of us want cougars to be out there.
"It seems now that the wolf and the cougar are certainly symbolic of what we lost. And many people are now interested in returning those animals, or righting those wrongs," he said.
For believers and non-believers alike, cougars have become a sort of icon of the wildness that remains, of a natural world reshaped by humans but still full of mystery.