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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Mountain Lions? I Hope So!

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., August 20, 2005.)
If they're here, the proof will come sooner or later. If they're not, no one will be able to prove it -- and rumors will persist indefinitely.
Do I really mean that? After all, considering their attacks on joggers in California, mountain lions, or cougars, are hardly safe to have around. And with my luck, I'd probably be the first person attacked in Pennsylvania. But I would like to believe we have mountain lions.

Many of us have heard stories about them. I've met several people who claim to have seen mountain lions -- locally and in other parts of the state. These men are not crackpots. They are reliable, intelligent, and not given to exaggeration.

A few weeks ago a new story emerged from the Coudersport area in Potter County, and was reported in the York Daily Record. A dog owner had his keeshond tied out on a dog run. A keeshond is a Dutch breed, medium-size, well tempered and friendly. It's reminiscent of a husky but slightly smaller with a tightly curled tail.

It was a hot day and the owner had watered the dog at lunchtime. A few hours later he found it tangled in its chain, dead and badly mutilated, with mountain lion tracks in the torn-up turf surrounding it. The owner claims that he has seen lions several times over the past 3 years, sometimes stalking deer, and says that the Wildlife Conservation Officer who was called was unwilling to investigate.

Do I believe this report? I don't disbelieve it, just as I don't disbelieve others whom I respect as credible witnesses. Could they have been mistaken? Possibly, just as I'm sure everyone (including me) has been mistaken about something a time or two. That's what makes this issue so difficult.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission says the big cats are not established in Pennsylvania, but some accuse the PGC of conspiring to hide evidence of their presence, and worse, participating in transplanting them here.

For the scientific angle on this issue, I turned to the website of the Cougar Network (formerly the Eastern Cougar Network) at www.cougarnet.org. If a wild breeding population of mountain lions lives in Pennsylvania, these researchers should know.

According to their June 2005 issue of "Wild Cat News," the Network takes an objective approach, not trying to prove or disprove the existence of the cats in the east -- "its only advocacy is for good science." Their ongoing database of wild cougar sightings does not include any confirmed sightings in Pennsylvania except possibly along the southeast border, far from the northern community of Coudersport. The confirmed sightings were in northern Delaware from 1996 to 2002, where officials are convinced that the animals were of captive origin.

Of the other mid-Atlantic states, the Cougar Network website says it is "a region where it is unlikely a remnant breeding population could have survived undetected over the past century. There was an old incident in western Pennsylvania in 1967 where a squirrel hunter shot a cougar while out hunting, but it was later confirmed that this animal was an escaped captive. In West Virginia, hunting with dogs is very popular…, every year thousands of hunters using hounds are out in hunting season pursuing bobcats, black bears and other wildlife. This means you would expect these hunters would regularly tree cougars if they were present, but this has not occurred."

Further, "Today, deer are very abundant making it potentially a good environment for the return of cougar to the landscape. However, there does not appear to be any evidence of either transients or remnant populations at this time. The occasional confirmations are most likely escapees or intentional releases and/or their progeny."

This is exactly the same position that the Pennsylvania Game Commission holds.

In light of the Cougar Network and the Pennsylvania Game Commission sharing the same view, I doubt that the PGC is involved in any conspiracy either to transplant or to cover up the existence of mountain lions here in the Keystone State.

However, plenty of people in Potter County and elsewhere are sure lions prowl the mountains, and more are convinced as time passes. If they're right, perhaps the only way to verify it is with a dead one, or with a picture of one showing up in front of a hunter's scouting camera. Either way, it might be difficult to prove it's not an escapee from someone's private menagerie.

I'm waiting to be convinced. If they're here, the proof will come sooner or later. If they're not, no one will be able to prove it -- and rumors will persist indefinitely. Now, about Bigfoot….

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A beginner's experience with 3D archery

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., August 6, 2005.)
Plenty of 3D shoots are not competitive events.
And you'll find camaraderie
even with people you don't know.
I shot my first 3D archery course 2 weeks ago. Until then, I was one of the majority of bowhunters who have never shot a 3D archery course. Now that I've done it, it seems odd that so many haven't. My first experience was more fun, more interesting, and more enlightening than I expected.

What is 3D archery? It's a specialized type of target archery. For most of us, our conception of target archery comes from youth camps, physical education classes, or televised Olympic competition where the archer shoots arrows at a large round bulls-eye with different colored concentric circles. In 3D shooting, the archer shoots at 3-dimensional targets in the shape of game animals positioned on a set course in realistic hunting terrain.

Courses consist of a variety of animal targets (usually 30 of them) in a variety of settings, at a variety of ranges, at a variety of angles and in a variety of lighting conditions. If you get the idea that variety is the spice of 3D shooting, you're right. As in golf, achieving a good score depends on dealing with all the variables while keeping consistent the things that must be consistent in order to shoot accurately.

Animal targets may be different at every event, but they range from familiar (deer, bear, caribou, turkey) to exotic (lion, blackbuck, alligator) to fantasy (dinosaur, and maybe even a pink panther). The challenge is to put one arrow into the faintly outlined "kill zone" on each target. Shots are scored at 11, 10, 8 and 5 points.

One nice thing about 3D archery is that new shooters need not be embarrassed about their level of skill. Courses are designed so that even the best shooters can make foolish mistakes -- and rookie shooters can get lucky.

Any bowhunter will benefit from 3D shooting. Yes, most of us shoot at deer from treestands, and most 3D shooting is done on the ground. But 3D gives even the treestand hunter practice under much more realistic conditions than does backyard shooting at the same target at known ranges. Shooting at 3D targets forces the shooter to notice things that can go wrong under hunting conditions.

Every archer knows that the secret to accuracy is consistency -- doing everything the same way with every shot. It's not easy, even with modern compound bows, to take every shot with the same grip, stance, and release, while standing on ground that is sloped, estimating distances to targets that are different sizes. Where are your feet? Are you holding the bow straight? Is your grip consistent? Does your sight picture look proper? Is your range estimation accurate? Is your anchor point right? Even the best shooters make mistakes.

Equipment does not have to be modern, technical or expensive. Longbow, recurve or compound shooters can all benefit. Although many people thrive on competition, plenty of 3D shoots are not competitive events and many of the ones that are can still be shot be shot for enjoyment rather than competition. You'll find camaraderie even with people you don't know, and you'll have plenty of opportunity to observe the techniques of others and to receive non-threatening instruction from experienced archers.

Whether you've shot a 3D course before or not, plenty of archery organizations exist around the state and many of them sponsor 3D shoots. You probably have an opportunity coming up soon within easy driving distance. They usually don't cost much, and my advice is to try one. Most of them have 30 targets, and entry fees are usually about $10.

How'd I do on my first foray into 3D shooting? I did OK. I enjoyed it, met some interesting people, and learned a few things. And I didn't lose any arrows.