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Wildlife chief: Big cats just a Louisiana fantasy

By GREG HILBURN
 | The News-Star

MONROE, La. (AP) — Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham said he puts black panther sightings in the same category as another elusive beast.

"Everywhere I go somebody has seen a black panther," Barham said. "It's sort of like Bigfoot. But the truth is there are no black panthers in Louisiana."

No black panther claim has ever been authenticated, Barham said. Black jaguars and black leopards aren't native to the United States. Jaguars are from Central America and South America, and leopards are from Africa.

Black panther hoaxes, as well as reported sightings of large tan cats like cougars or mountain lions, become so numerous during hunting season that Barham's department was compelled to issue a statement debunking the myth.

"Every year, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries gets dozens of reported sightings of large cats, both tan and black," the statement said. "When investigated, almost all of these claims turn out to be more common species such as house cats, bobcats, otters, dogs or even feral hogs."

In November, a photo of a black leopard was circulating in northwestern Louisiana with the claim it came from a local game camera, stirring interest among those who believed it was the evidence needed to prove the existence of black panthers in Louisiana.

But LDWF said the identical photo was also posted on wildlife forums and Facebook in Tennessee on Nov. 8, North Carolina on Oct. 22 and Georgia on Oct. 1. Where does the picture originate? Africa, LDWF said.

A similar picture of a mountain lion, supposedly taken in Louisiana, has been circulating through southern Louisiana. That picture originated in Minnesota.

But while black panthers in Louisiana may be a myth, Barham and his department admit an occasional tan cougar might make its way to the state from Texas, Oklahoma or Arkansas.

LDWF said Louisiana doesn't have a population of cougars or mountain lions, but there have been verified sightings of those cats in 2002, 2008 and 2011.

"We've had an uptick in cougar sightings recently, and that could be because of the recent drought in Texas," Barham said. "They are mobile cats that can travel as many as 100 miles in a day, so I wouldn't be surprised."

Barham isn't going to convince Tensas Basin Levee District executive director John Stringer that there isn't at least a small population of cougars in the state.

"They can say what they want to, but I've seen them with my own eyes," Stringer said. "When I was a boy squirrel hunting in northern Morehouse Parish I heard a blood-curdling scream that scared the hell out of me.

"Later, as an adult, I saw a cougar cross the road in front of me before I deployed to Vietnam. A few weeks later, I was sent a local newspaper clipping in the mail that had a photo of a cougar someone killed here."

If you do see a cougar, or the mythic black panther, Barham warns hunters not to shoot them.

"They're protected," he said.

But Barham said there are no restrictions on shooting Bigfoot.

"I can probably arrange a tag for that," he said, laughing. "But you better be very sure before you pull the trigger."

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Information from: The News-Star, www.thenewsstar.com

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