Someone Claims They Saw a Mountain Lion Roaming Around in Winchester

But the state hasn't had a confirmed cougar sighting since the 1800s.

A Winchester resident claimed to have seen a mountain lion lurking in a wooded area in the Boston suburb this week, but the likelihood that it actually was a large cat of that breed is certainly debatable.

That’s because Massachusetts’ history with the mountain lion is shoddy to say the least. The last actual confirmed mountain lion sighting dates back more than a century, and alleged sightings since then have usually been nothing more than a person mistaking the large animals for other members of the feline family.

According to a warning sent out by the Winchester Police Department, a mountain lion was allegedly sighted in the Dunster Lane and Pepper Hill Drive neighborhood off of Ridge Street Thursday.

Massachusetts Environmental Police responded and viewed the animal’s paw prints and stated the tracks strongly resembled that of a mountain lion, police said. Photos of the tracks were sent to state wildlife experts for verification.

The Division of Fish and Wildlife put out a statement late Friday that said officials are evaluating the photographs of the tracks reported to the Winchester Police by the residents that caught a glimpse of the animal, to determine whether they actually belong to a mountain lion. “Massachusetts Environmental Police are investigating the alleged sighting. Mountain lion sightings are rare in Massachusetts, and the last known record of a mountain lion was 1858,” said Amy Mahler, assistant press secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, said he doubts that Massachusetts has a new cougar friend, however. “Theoretically, lets face it, there could be a lion there. One showed up in Connecticut all the way from South Dakota at one time. So it’s possible. But it’s not very likely,” he said. “They would have to do a lot traveling to get to Massachusetts. Most researchers have put forth that possibly as much as 87 percent of all sightings everywhere, even by people that are fairly expert on acknowledging what they see, are not actually mountain lions.”

According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, this is how you can tell if a track was left by a cougar:

Mountain lions have a distinctive “M” shaped pad with three lobes on the rear of the heel (dogs only have two lobes). Their claw marks do not show in the track. Walking, the cat’s hind foot steps in his fore track, creating overlapping patterns. Their toes slant — similar to human feet mdash; indicating left or right foot.

While the state investigates, Winchester Police put out safety tips for residents on how to deal with an encounter with a mountain lion, in case the sighting was legitimate.

The state occasionally gets calls from concerned citizens about possible mountain lion sightings, as well as photos from the general public, but the reports have never been confirmed. Many times the animals end up being Fisher Cats or Bobcats. The state receives similar call about wolves, according to officials, but those sightings are often small coyotes with bushy winter coats.

This isn’t the first scare for Massachusetts in terms of recent mountain lion run-ins. An inconclusive mountain lion sighting in Western, Massachusetts last year had residents of Hampden on edge. There were also unconfirmed reports of a cougar sighting in the Berkshires in 2008, after a resident claimed she saw one of the 150-pound cats slinking through her backyard on the prowl.

Dunbar said he worried that if it is a mountain lion, it could be in danger. “I’d like to see one there for you guys, but any lion that shows up in the area might get killed. I don’t think the populace is ready for it yet, and there are no laws to protect them. Or sometimes what happens, is they will get killed by cars,” he said.