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  • August 15th, 2011

It’s the God’s Truth!

By Joel M. Vance

As Dorothy nervously tiptoes through the Land of Oz, she chants , “Lions and Tigers and Bears,” her voice quavering with fear.  Apparently Oz has resurfaced in northeast Ohio.  The police in New Philadelphia, Ohio, according to the Associated Press, “….are cautioning that a wolf may be roving in the same area of northeast Ohio where people have reported seeing what they thought was a mountain lion.”

It’s not quite lions and tigers and bears, but close.  No one, as yet, has reported a yeti or Sasquatch, but any day now.  The AP continues, “Police Chief Jeff Urban in New Philadelphia has urged residents to keep children, pets and pet food indoors because of an animal he described as a “large, silver dog.” He says there are reports that it has killed ducks and a deer fawn, though none about the animal being aggressive with people or pets.”

I don’t want to make fun of those fearful folks in Ohio, especially if some large animal carries off Little Eva, but wildlife rumors are the stuff of coffee shop discussion and have been for decades.  The culprit almost always is the state wildlife agency which is accused of stocking the rumored animals for unknown but undoubtedly sinister purposes.

If there is a Himalayan equivalent of the Corner Cozy Cup, there are several Good Ol’ Sherpas crouched over cups of yak butter tea agreeing that things have gone to pot since the conservation department stocked those yetis.

Wherever there is a local coffee shop, you’ll find a tableful of good ol’ boys building up the latest wildlife rumor.  Wildlife rumors are as virulent as prairie wildfire.  All it takes is someone’s stray Labrador retriever, glimpsed in a field by a passer-by.  The retriever becomes a black panther and within moments the rumor expands. The black panther was stocked by the conservation department (a) to control deer; (b) to discourage poachers; (c) for dark and devious purpose, best left unexplained.

No organization is more subject to rumor than the Conservation Department.  It’s fair game, pardon the pun, for every wild story around.

Rattlesnakes are a persistent creature-of-rumor, from Missouri to Maine.  One Missouri story is that the state is trading wild turkeys for rattlers and aerial seeding the snakes in the heavily-wooded Ozarks (the snakes are put in water-filled balloons to break the fall).

The January, 2006, issue of the Department of Conservation magazine has a letter from a reader saying, “We heard a story that we’re hoping is not true,” the letter began.  “We were told the Conservation Department has released a bunch of rattlesnakes in Mo. Because they are listed on the endangered species.”

Not true.  Rattlesnakes are a rumor that persists, like the beheaded snake that refuses to die until the sun goes down (or maybe that’s snapping turtles).  Tom Shoener, who was with the Maine Fish and Wildlife Department’s magazine, recalled that back in the 1970s a rumor began that Maine, the only state with no rattlesnakes, was stocking them.

“An outdoor writer who was upset with our pheasant stocking program fancied himself a writer of satire,” Shoener said.  “He did a piece about the snake stocking program and people took it seriously.”

So did the Legislature when letters began to come in from irate constituents.  “We were in dire financial straits at the time,” Shoener said.  “We had a bill for a permit increase which was desperately needed and had a heck of a time convincing the legislators that the snake story wasn’t true.”

Some rumors are induced for a purpose.  Some years back, a conservation agent plagued by hand fishermen, those hardy, if illegal, souls who reach into dark, creepy subsurface crevices in rivers to grab large fish, dropped a rumor at the coffee shop that the Department was stocking alligators.

“It cut down on the hand fishing for a while,” he said.

Let an exotic creature surface and instantly there is a rumor that the state conservation department is stocking the creatures.  If a porcupine pops up far south of its range or an armadillo far north, why everyone knows that the department is responsible.  “My aunt says she heard from her cleaning lady that her brother knows a guy who was there when they dumped them out.”

Almost as persistent as rattlesnake stocking is the story that the wildlife department is stocking cougars for nefarious reasons.  Sometimes it’s to frighten deer or elk so they’re harder for hunters to kill.  Other times it’s to control deer populations

Oddly, the story that mountain lions exist in various states, dismissed as rumor for many years, has proved to be true—Missouri had two killed by vehicles in a year’s time after denying the existence of the animals in the state for more than half a century.  If Missouri has them, so probably does Kansas, Iowa and other states that have declared the animals non-present (Iowa thought its last lion vanished in 1867).

But the state wildlife agencies are not stocking them, especially with black helicopters (a frequent element of the rumor).  That much is true.

In Pennsylvania and other states the rumor circulated that the Game Division, in cooperation with insurance companies, was releasing coyotes to kill off deer and reduce auto-deer collisions.   West Virginia biologist Ray Knotts said he thought hunters who couldn’t kill a deer were spreading the rumor.  “The coyote right now is just a good scapegoat,” he said.

While most wildlife rumors involve animals, fish aren’t exempt.  North Dakota reported a two-headed northern pike and there actually was a photo.  But the photo probably was fake and no one at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department could find any credible evidence that it actually existed.

Sometimes the creatures involved don’t even exist, sound like something out of Winnie the Pooh.  Missourians long believed that the Conservation Department had stocked “honey bears,” whatever those are.  You still hear occasional references to them, at least 50 years after the original story began.  Black bears are expanding their range into states like Kentucky and Missouri, but not because, as rumor would have it, the state is stocking them.

Another longtime Missouri rumor is that stocked “Mexican quail” (more properly Texas bobwhites) have replaced the native bobwhite.  They are smaller than the original bird, goes the story, and more prone to flush wild, fly farther and always hide in the woods.  Actually there were Mexican quail stocked, but they quickly vanished, not into the gene pool, but into various predatory tummies.  Probably less than a half-dozen years after the last stocking, the Mexican birds had been absorbed into the native population and no expert could tell the difference.

And Mo-Mo, the Missouri version of the Sasquatch or Yeti or Big Foot, hasn’t made an appearance for many years, but was a frequent source of coffee shop chatter for months in the 1960s.  It’s only a matter of time until the hairy he/she resurfaces.

Or maybe not—the Montana rumor was that a rancher, Steve Kukowski, shot a Big Foot a few years ago and wildlife officials confiscated the defunct Sasquatch for God-knows-what awful purpose.  Kukowski says the whole story is baloney

A good friend, who worked for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks , said, “I have no comment.  The FBI cleaned everything up.” Bill was joking…but also asking for it because the coffee shop rumor mill does not recognize humor.

It only recognizes two-headed fish and airborne rattlesnakes….

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