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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Mountain Lion Mania and the Internet

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 28, 2007.)
The animal is the living, snarling real McCoy.
Clearly, the animal in all four photos is a true mountain lion.
"A mountain lion was spotted and photographed near Jamestown, New York!"
"Really?" you say. "Maybe that's the one somebody saw in Lander!"

Four close-up pictures of a mountain lion are circulating on the Internet. The lion stood on the patio deck of a home, and was looking into the house through a glass door. The animal is unmistakable. There is no doubt that it is a mountain lion. The photos were taken on February 17, 2007, the story goes, at a house on a particular road in Chautauqua County in the Busti, New York area.

With clear photos and specific details, you'd think there must be something to the story. And after all, pictures don't lie, right? And with photographic documentation, who's to argue?

Me. I'll take issue with it, and try to separate true from false.

Fact number one: the photos are real. They have not been "PhotoShopped," or doctored in any way.

Fact number two: the animal is the living, snarling real McCoy. Clearly, the animal in all four photos is a true mountain lion. No one can credibly suggest that it is a bobcat, a coyote, a deer, a barn cat, a yellow Labrador retriever, or any other animal that is sometimes mistaken for a mountain lion.

That much is true. But these photos were not taken on February 17, 2007. They were taken more than three years ago. How do I know that? I know because that information is embedded in the photos.

With digital photography, the camera records lots of information right along with each image. It documents the brand and model of the camera, exposure time, ISO speed, whether the flash was used, and dozens of other bits of information including the date and time of each photo. The photos I received by email are dated March 10, 2004 at 7:15 AM. (And they were taken with a Nikon camera.)

Couldn't the date and time settings in the camera have been incorrectly set? Yes, that's possible, but it doesn't change the fact that these are not recent photos because I have seen them before. Several times. They have been circulating on the Internet for at least three years. So, do the math. They were definitely not taken on February 17, or any time near that.

Nor were they taken in the Busti, New York area. How do I know that?

Internet hoaxes are prolific, and the computer user who has not been fooled at least once or twice is rare. Any time a story that's a stretch pops up on our computer screens, we ought to be suspicious. Whether it's a UFO, a mermaid, or proof of Bigfoot, start with doubt. Or at least a little skepticism, as the people in the email trail that reached me exhibited.

A quick visit to any one of several scam-busting Internet sites can help you to separate fact from fiction in the endless onslaught of emails. One of the sites is called www.snopes.com.

What does Snopes say about these photos? The pictures are real, but through the years people have claimed that they come from South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania and several other states.

What is the truth? It turns out that these widely circulated photos were in fact taken in Lander by Dr. David Rogers at his home there. Lander is a couple of hours north of Interstate 80, but it's not the Lander you're probably thinking of. It's the Lander that is 1,713 miles away from Lander, Pennsylvania, in the middle of Wyoming.

Have I disproved the existence of a Chautauqua County mountain lion? Or any mountain lion reported in this area recently? Absolutely not. All I can say is that the photographs on the Internet have nothing to do with any local sightings.

I have a friend who told me he saw a lion last fall while spotting deer in Scandia, just before deer season. Could be. It's the type of thing that's hard to believe unless you've seen it yourself. So for now, whether mountain lions live in our neck of the woods remains an unsolved mystery.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Drop the Mandatory Orange Rule for Spring Gobbler Season

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 14, 2007.)
Pennsylvania is a good test case for the rule
because it's the only state with the rule.
The rule has failed the test.
In spring gobbler season, "A hat containing a minimum of 100 square inches of solid fluorescent orange material, visible 360 degrees, must be worn at all times when moving."

So reads the rule. Can it save lives or prevent injury? Common sense would answer, "Yes." But it's a bad rule.

It's a bad rule for a number of reasons. First, because IF it can prevent accidents, it can also cause accidents. Male wild turkeys, the target of our efforts in spring gobbler season, have red as a prominent color on their heads. Under certain light conditions a minimal amount of orange can easily be viewed as red. I've seen the dewlap, the fleshy web along the throats of gobblers, filter sunlight into a bright orange color. If red on a turkey's head can look orange, why can't a hunter's orange hat look red? It can, because orange is close to red on the color spectrum.

That means the orange rule, contrary to common sense, could actually be dangerous under certain conditions.

But that's not all. If I reposition myself to the other side of the tree to work a circling gobbler, am I to put on an orange hat? My bet is that no hunter does, but if a wildlife conservation officer observes me doing that, I'm probably subject to arrest. And I wouldn't blame him. He didn't make the rule. He's just doing his job. I can argue that I'm not really moving. I'm just repositioning myself. He'll tell me to reposition myself to the magistrate's office if I want to fight it.

What if I'm employing the often-used tactic of circling to get ahead of a moving gobbler? A hunter making such a move risks being seen by the gobbler. Adding an orange hat increases the risk considerably, so the temptation to forego the orange hat is very strong. The percentage of hunters who obey the rule under those conditions is probably only one or two points north of zero.

It's easy to identify situations where the hunter is inclined to ignore the rule. A safety rule that makes no sense to hunters so that they don't, won't, or can't comply is a dangerous rule. It's a rule that creates the conditions for a shooting in mistake for game.

The pro-orange argument might then go like this. Even though hunters do not always follow the mandatory orange rule, doesn't it help reduce hunting accidents anyway? The answer is "No."

Pennsylvania is a good test case for the rule because it's the only state with the rule. The rule has failed the test. During the 8 years prior to 1993 when the mandatory orange regulation began, there were 8.75 incidents per year, or 4.3 per 100,000 hunters. (They're called "incidents" to include all gun-related injuries while hunting, without defining whether they are "accidents" or not.)

After the orange rule was adopted in 1993 the overall rate of incidents per year in Pennsylvania's spring turkey season increased to 10.38, or 4.5 incidents per 100,000 hunters. With the mandatory orange rule, the rate has actually gone up slightly. So, for safety's sake, why shouldn't we abandon the rule?

Of course, Pennsylvania has a high number of hunters, so it is worthwhile to compare the incident rates in other states. In New York, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan and West Virginia – all states with a high population of hunters and no mandatory orange – the rates are lower than in Pennsylvania. All evidence points to the conclusion that wearing the orange hat does not make the Pennsylvania hunter safer.

That's why the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation recommends the Pennsylvania Game Commission rescind the regulation. The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners is meeting this week, on April 17 and 18, and will be discussing this issue. If you agree that it's time to abandon the mandatory orange rule for spring turkey hunters, contact Executive Director Carl Roe now by email at croe@state.pa.us, and the other Commissioners at pgccomments@state.pa.us.

Tell them that the mandatory rule of wearing an orange hat in spring gobbler season is an unnecessary and ineffective regulation, and should be abandoned because it has failed to improve safety.

P.S. I have proposed the following idea to the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners: Test the rule by removing it in a specific test area. WMUs 1B and 2F would be a good choice. These WMUs are large enough to be statistically significant, and have widely varied geography and topography. They include mountains, farmlands, rolling hills, flatlands, urban areas, and a large amount of accessible public property. They include areas of dense human population as well as sparsely populated areas. The PA chapter of the NWTF can undertake an intense effort to educate hunters in this area with the absence of the rule. Collect data for two years, and then be guided by the results of the test.