Deep in the mountains of West Virginia, technical motion-sensor cameras are taking pictures and watching every move in the forest. But the cameras aren’t looking for you. They’re searching for an animal that, as far as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned, does not exist.
The eastern cougar is officially extinct. According to conventional wisdom and general scientific consensus, human beings pushed the cougar out of its natural habitat in the East by widespread hunting and deforestation more than a hundred years ago.
“We believe the eastern cougar was extirpated from the Southern Appalachians and surrounding areas,” says David Rabon, an endangered species wildlife biologist for the state of North Carolina. “We believe it doesn’t exist anymore.”
It’s an official position that puts members of the Eastern Cougar Foundation, a group of well-respected professionals and scientists, in the same category as Bigfoot hunters and alien spacecraft spotters. They spend their time and money searching for something that officially does not exist.
Regardless of the cougar’s official “extirpated” status among wildlife biologists, cougar sightings are a common occurrence in the Eastern United States. Hikers and farmers have reported seeing cougars across the Appalachian range throughout the past century, a time period that was cougar free according to wildlife biologists. A slew of unconfirmed sightings in the early ‘70s were numerous enough to get the eastern cougar listed on the federal endangered species list in 1973. Endangered, not extinct. As a result of continuous sightings, an official U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service search for cougar signs was undertaken in 1980 in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. The search resulted in several scats and signs that were inconclusive at the time (this was before DNA tests were perfected).
Sightings in the Southern Appalachians have only increased since the official study in the ‘80s. According to the Eastern Puma Research Network, more than 300 cougar sightings have been reported in West Virginia alone in the last 30 years. Reports along the western Virginia border are so frequent that the Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries Department publishes a list of counties where cougar sightings are common. In Delaware, 69 cougar sightings have been reported since 1999. The Pennsylvania Game Commission is currently developing a formal system for tracking mountain lion sightings across the state due to the large increase in report volume. David Rabon says he personally receives two to three cougar reports a week.
But sightings alone aren’t considered tangible evidence.
“We’ve received pictures of ‘cougars’ that turned out to be golden retrievers and house cats,” Dowling says. “Just because there are cougar sightings in the East, doesn’t mean there are cougars in the East.”
Sightings are so frequent and unreliable that the Fish and Wildlife Service has an unofficial term for them: UFOs-Unidentified Furry Objects. Is the increase in cougar reports throughout the Southern Appalachians merely a case of mass hysteria and over-enthusiasm, or is there something more to sightings? Do cougars, officially considered extinct, live wild in the East?
KING OF THE BEASTS
Cougars don’t walk; they glide, as if they’ve figured out some sort of loophole within the law of gravity. Adult males can reach 140 pounds and seven feet long from nose to tail. They’re brown with patches of gray and white. They can jump 15 feet high. They can swim, climb trees, see at night. They can sprint up to 35 miles per hour. After a kill, this carnivore drags its prey out of sight and covers it up with leaves and grass, as if covering up a crime. And cougars don’t roar, they scream-like a woman wailing in agonizing pain. It’s no wonder that generations of rural Americans have feared the cougar. It’s no wonder they created a dozen different names for the cat: cougar, panther, painter, catamount, puma, mountain lion, Indian devil, ghost cat, painted cat, king cat, mountain screamer, American lion-only the Devil has more aliases. It’s also no wonder that Americans didn’t bother studying the cougar scientifically until the late ‘60s, choosing instead to eradicate the cat with an unnerving gusto.
“There seems to be an inherent fear of certain animals,” Rabon says. “Generations of Americans believed the only safe environment, was an environment without cougars.”
The cougar was the top of the food chain in North America, controlling the entire landscape from Canada to South America. The Cherokee called the cougar “the Lord of the Forests.” The Cree called it “the Greatest of Wild Hunters.” The Chickasaw referred to the cougar as “the Cat of God.” In the Southeast, the cat thrived from the coastal swamps to the Appalachian Mountains. It was one of the first animals Columbus wrote about, mistaking the cougar for the vicious lions that crusaders had encountered centuries before. Experts say the trouble started there, with that unfortunate case of mistaken identity.
The first European settlers transferred the myths of man-eating lions to the cats that occupied the forests of the New World, and the hatred of cougars snowballed from there. Myths of man and livestock-eating cougars spread, and for centuries, the cougar was treated like vermin. Bounties were put on their skins. Packs of dogs were used to track the cats down and tree them for an easy kill. Eventually, widespread deforestation and the market hunting of deer within this region finished off our extermination job. Cougars disappeared, and according to wildlife biologists, have been absent from the Southeast for 100 years aside from a small population that survived in the swamps of Southern Florida-a subspecies of the cougar known as the Florida panther. Some cougar enthusiasts wonder if perhaps a similar population of cats didn’t survive in the remote forests of Appalachia.
“The cougar is a native species,” says Mark Jenkins, operator of the Cooper’s Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary in West Virginia. “It was here before we pushed it away. I’ve talked to enough people to believe that some of them did survive in this region.”
There’s a vibrant subculture surrounding the possible existence of cougars in the eastern half of the United States, but they’re not all Bigfoot hunters. Some simply want to believe the cat that once ruled the Appalachian Mountains is not gone for good.
“The cougar represents something very wild, and we almost have a need to believe they exist, especially as we lose more land to development,” said Buddy Baker, a biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in an interview in the Charleston Gazette.
Some are so convinced of the cougar’s existence, they imply there’s a government conspiracy to cover up the existence of cougars in the East. Chris Bolgiano, a respected nature writer, author of three books on cougars, and member of the Eastern Cougar Foundation, is still maintaining hope for the impressive eastern cougar, and is frustrated with the government’s refusal to accept any evidence suggesting cougars may be living wild in the Southeast.
“The USFWS official position is that there are none in the East, so any cougars found here aren’t their responsibility,” Bolgiano says. “Recognizing cougars in the Eastern landscape would open a can of worms that these government agencies don’t want to undertake. Regardless, the Eastern Cougar Foundation is actively searching for cougar evidence. But there’s nothing like Bigfoot involved in what we do.”
Bolgiano insists America’s history of cougar fear, or “puma paranoia,” is at the heart of the government’s reluctance to acknowledge any evidence of cougars existing in the East.
“Look at how the ivory billed woodpecker sighting was received by the scientific community,” Bolgiano says. “Even though the woodpecker sighting was substantiated by only the slightest bit of evidence, and even though that evidence was disputed, it was received with great enthusiasm from the government and the scientific community. We know from confirmations that there are cougars living in the East, but that evidence is treated as suspect while the woodpecker sighting was embraced. Why? Because the ivory billed woodpecker isn’t a large carnivore.”
Bolgiano’s latest book, Eastern Cougars, compiles for the first time a dozen confirmed reports of cougars existing in the East over the last couple of decades. Yes, there is solid evidence supporting the theory that cougars are living wild in our woods: cougar corpses found roadside, confirmed pictures, bite marks that match that of a cougar-all of which, according to Bolgiano and other members of the Eastern Cougar Foundation, is undeniable proof that the cougar is living in the Appalachian Range.
Wildlife biologists insist the issue is not that black and white.
“We do have cougars living in the East,” Rabon says. “We have had confirmed cougar reports, but they’ve all been determined to be someone’s pet or an animal escaped from a petting zoo.”
Mark Jenkins says the cougar pet trade is a growing problem. The five cougars that live permanently at his mountain lion sanctuary were all former pets. People buy the cougars as kittens, then release them as they get older, larger, and harder to manage. The sanctuary is the last stop for pets that have been mistreated and need a home. Jenkins says he has to turn down at least one pet cougar a month. “It’s a whole underground industry. People would be surprised how prevalent this problem is.”
Most times, instead of seeking out a cougar sanctuary, cougar owners simply release their cats in a national forest. These are the cougars that Rabon insists people are seeing. The cougars confirmed by the state have been either tattooed or tagged, or have had South American genes, all of which point toward an escaped or released pet.
“Every five years, we look at the endangered species list on a state level and revise the information surrounding each species,” Rabon says. “There hasn’t been any information during this process to suggest the eastern cougar still exists.”
Harley Shaw, a retired wildlife biologist on the board of the Cougar Network and author of three books about cougars including the Mountain Lion Field Guide, says holding out hope that these cougar sightings are the native eastern cougar species is wishful thinking.
“It’s hard to believe that a tiny population of cougars could have survived in those mountains for a hundred years, simply because there wouldn’t have been a substantial breeding population,” Shaw says.
Even if a few cougars did hold out in the remote forests that were never logged, Shaw insists they wouldn’t have been able to sustain a population because the old growth forests were too disconnected. The cougars couldn’t have traveled safely from forest to forest to refresh their bloodlines. If the hunting and deforestation didn’t wipe out the cougars, inbreeding and disease would have. Scientists point to the Florida panther population in the Everglades as proof. While a small number of cougars survived the hunting and development in that region, their numbers were too small to effectively reproduce, and there were no other cougar populations within traveling distance to breed with. Before biologists imported cougars from other parts of the country, the Florida panther was on its way to extinction, brought on by inbreeding.
In addition to the biological barriers a cougar population would have had to overcome to survive in this region, cougars would have had to survive the ongoing and expanding presence of man.
“Whenever people and cougars share space, cougar bodies show up,” Dowling says. “One of the highest sources of cougar mortality is road kills.”
Dowling points to the existing cougar population in Southern Florida and the Western United States as proof. Today, Florida has an estimated panther population of 100. On average, the department of natural resources recovers 10 panther bodies from Florida roads. In South Dakota, they have 160 cats and recover 30 cougar bodies every year.
“The Southeast is even more populated with more hunters and heavier road densities,” Dowling says. “The evidence is overwhelming. If there were a native cougar population here, we would know it. We would find the bodies.”
It’s 1997 in Western Kentucky. A man hits and kills an eight-pound female cougar kitten. Through a DNA test, the Kentucky Department of Game and Fish concludes the kitten was born in the wild, and that one of its parents was a released pet. But the same DNA test suggests the other parent, the father, was most likely wild. According to members of the Eastern Cougar Foundation, it’s the single most important piece of evidence regarding cougars in the East.
“The cougar kitten had South American DNA, suggesting its mother was a product of the popular cougar pet trade, but it also had North American DNA,” Bolgiano says, insisting the DNA proves the released pet cougars are breeding with wild cougars. “This kitten was the only cat born in the wild found in the East since the 1800s. This business about all the cougars in the East being released pets is just a smokescreen that allows the government agencies to get out of having to protect them. It doesn’t matter if the cats are released if they’re breeding with North American cougars like the parents of that Kentucky kitten. Why condemn cougars living in the wild because they may not have the original eastern cougar DNA strain?”
Bolgiano doesn’t care where the cougars came from, as long as they’re filling a much-needed ecological niche, which is something of great importance to cougar trackers and wildlife biologists alike. As top of the food chain, the cougar was the only natural predator of deer. It’s been absent from the Eastern landscape for 100 years, and we’re just now starting to realize the weight of that absence.
“Deer populations have exploded because there is no animal that puts pressure on that species,” David Rabon says. “Having cougars back in the landscape would help maintain the deer, ultimately resulting in a much healthier deer population. By putting an animal back into the food cycle that originally played a significant role but has been absent for 100 years, it would return balance to that ecosystem.“
One way to return the balance of nature is to release cougars back into Southeastern forests, a concept that has some cougar enthusiasts brimming with excitement. Debbie and Craig Cylke run the Ellijay Wildlife Rehabilitation Sanctuary in North Georgia. Over the last 28 years, the Cylke’s have raised 15 to 20 cougars. They have three cougars at their facility now, all of which are from the Florida Everglades. Their publicly-stated endgame is to find suitable mates to breed with their cougars and eventually release them into the wild.
“The federal and state department of natural resources would have to be involved in the release of the cougars, finding a location and monitoring their progress,” Debbie Cylke says, noting that the obstacles she and her husband would have to overcome are innumerable, not the least of which is location. Where would you put these large, fast carnivores, each of which needs an estimated 25 square miles of forest to call their own?
“They’re moving Atlanta into the mountains. It’s too populated here to release the cougars,” Cylke says, adding that perhaps some sections of West Virginia and North Carolina might be remote enough.
Mark Dowling says the forests in the East are once again terrific cougar habitat. “The increase of deer and elk populations in this region is attractive for cougars.” But it’s not just a matter of finding a suitable forest. “The big problem is people.”
The cougar would undoubtedly help restore ecological balance to our forests, but imagine the public outcry induced by a federally sponsored release of a dozen or so 140-pound carnivorous cats only miles from suburban populations. The government has released large carnivores in the past with varying success (the red wolf in North Carolina and the grey wolf in Yellowstone National Park) but none of the animals previously released were as feared and hated as the cougar.
“Local opposition to introducing a large carnivore behind someone’s house is always going to be high,” Rabon says. “You have to get federal and local support, and for that, you have to get over the political and social obstacles surrounding the cougar.”
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Florida panther languished. Its numbers dwindled to 30. Scientists feared the end of the species. Then biologists introduced a closely related cougar from Texas to expand the bloodline, and the numbers rose. Currently, there are an estimated 100 cougars living in the Everglades of Florida-not a massive population by any means, but large enough to raise concern from residents living near cougar habitat. Even though there has never been one cougar attack on humans in Florida’s recorded history, residents are concerned for their safety, a concern largely based on the recent loss of a handful of pets.
“In some cases, the [panther] seemed to be getting a little too comfortable around people,” said Jim Coletta, a Collier County commissioner, in The Washington Post after a pet went missing. “I was especially concerned that a small child at play, or at a bus stop, could be vulnerable to attack.”
In Iowa, where a small number of cougars have migrated in recent years, DNR officials report some citizens have stopped participating in normal activities like hiking and camping. From the West Coast to Southern Florida, there’s a general unease when it comes to cougars. Throughout history, cougar attacks have always been hyped in the media, bolstering the cougar’s undeserved label as a man-killer.
“No American beast has been the subject of so much loose writing or of such wild fables as the cougar,” Teddy Roosevelt famously said.
According to leading scientists, the fear of cougars is completely unfounded. In the last 100-plus years, there have only been 20 confirmed human deaths attributed to cougars. In California, where thirty million people live near one of the country’s largest cougar populations, attacks on humans are rare, and usually the work of a sick cougar.
“Your chances of being killed by a mountain lion are lower than your chances of being killed by a vending machine,” Mark Dowling says. “Dogs kill more people every year than cougars have killed in the last 100 years.”
However, all the statistics in the world aren’t going to help the American people overcome their innate fear of the cougar., says David Rabon. “You can throw studies at these people and support your argument with science and facts, but nothing will change their minds.”
It’s an uneasy scenario, particularly since cougars are moving back into this region whether people like it or not.
Mountain lions usually leave their mothers between the ages of 10 and 18 months. Each male cougar needs a range of territory to call his own that spans from 25 to 100 square miles. If a young male cougar sticks around an older cougar’s established range, he’ll be killed. So cougars naturally disperse, spreading throughout the forests and establishing their own “homesteads.” Since the 1990s, cougars have been dispersing eastward, showing up in states like Iowa and Arkansas and Michigan, states where cougars haven’t been present in more than a century.
In 2004, a cougar was found killed by a train in Red Rock, Oklahoma. It was the first cougar confirmation in that area in 100 years. The animal was wearing a tracking collar that had been attached in Wyoming. The cat traveled 670 miles from its original home.
In 2005, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recovered the remains of a male Florida Panther in northeastern Florida. No tattoos or transponder chips were found on the animal. It had all its claws and its teeth were in good condition-all of which suggests the panther was wild and native. The age fit for a dispersing male and wildlife biologists suggested the cat wandered up from South Florida looking for females. It was the first time in more than 20 years that they’ve had a confirmed panther in that area.
In 2006, a mountain lion killed by a Lewistown, Montana, hunter was radio-collared three years before in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 450 miles away. Other cats radio-collared in the same study ended up in Minnesota and Oklahoma. In the same year, a GPS unit tracked a female mountain lion that traveled 830 miles, crossing major interstates and climbing 10,000-foot mountains along the way.
The frequency of cougar confirmations in the Midwest and prairie states has been accelerating every year, and the general scientific consensus seems to be the same: cougars are moving East.
“As the West’s cougar populations expand, young cougars have begun dispersing further east, looking for unoccupied habitat,” Mark Dowling says.
Coyote populations underwent the same dispersion patterns in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now coyotes breed and thrive in every state along the Eastern seaboard. With the Southern forests finally rebounded from the massive deforestation and the deer populations booming, will cougars eventually make it to the Southeast?
David Rabon thinks it’s inevitable. “It won’t be six months from now or even six years, but eventually, we will be dealing with wild cougars on the Eastern landscape again.”
Biologists are worried about the cougars living in the mountains around Los Angeles. They’re worried about all the cougars in Southern California, for that matter. While California has a thriving cougar population, the southern half of the state’s forest system is fragmented and disconnected. National park biologists insist the Santa Monica Mountains, which house a small cougar population outside Los Angeles, aren’t expansive enough to sustain any cougar expansion. They say these cougars need to connect with other forests and populations in order to strengthen and disperse their bloodlines, just as the Florida panther needed fresh cougars to combat inbreeding.
The solution is the “South Coast Missing Linkages Project,” which attempts to designate stretches of land, usually a mile wide or bigger, where all animals can travel from one forest to another without having to navigate urban areas and interstates. The ultimate goal of the project is to establish an entire system of wild lands that’s connected throughout Southern California’s ecosystem.
Bolgiano wants the federal and state governments to start establishing a similar system throughout the Southeastern landscape now, before significant cougar populations disperse to our landscape.
“Ultimately, we have to think about habitat protection. The national forests and parks in the Southeast are a great start to cougar habitat, but they need linkages between them,” Bolgiano says. “The density of human development that exists between these national forests is scary. You’ll have in-breeding and death within the cougar populations without the exchanges that linkages provide.”
Beyond the disconnected forest system, cougars in the Southeast will have to somehow overcome cultural obstacles as well.
“In the Southeast, cougars have been gone from the landscape for 100 years,” Rabon says. “A couple of generations have gone by that have no understanding of these animals whatsoever, and they’re informed by previous generations that spent their time eradicating the cougar.”
Residents living out West are well versed in the nuances of living near cougar habitat. The various Western state DNR’s undergo education campaigns to teach people how to react during cougar encounters and how to protect household pets and livestock. Bolgiano would like to see the USFWS doing something similar in the Southeast before the inevitable “puma paranoia” strikes.
“All we want is for the state agencies to undergo an education campaign like they do out west, providing common sense information to the public before cougars become more common in the East,” Bolgiano says. “We need to provide the forest linkages and public education before cougars become more common in the East. We need federal and state protection of these animals now, but until there are enough people pressuring state agencies, nothing will happen.”
In order to apply pressure on the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bolgiano needs proof of cougars living in the East. So for her and the rest of the Eastern Cougar Foundation, it’s back to the motion sensor cameras and the uncomfortable Bigfoot comparisons. It’s back to searching for the elusive cougar. It’s back to pressuring the USFWS for protection so that cougars making their way to our forests from Western states will find the habitat to be more hospitable than when their ancestors left.
EAST MEETS WEST
Cougars originally found in the Eastern United States were considered a separate subspecies of felis concolor (cougar) by biologists. The cougars found in Florida were also considered a separate subspecies and named the Florida panther. The cougars discovered out west were again considered a separate subspecies and were dubbed-you guessed it-western cougars.
“Those classifications were largely done in the 18th and 19th centuries when biologists were concerned primarily with classifying things,” says Harley Shaw, a retired wildlife biologist himself.
Several years ago, a DNA study of the Florida panther and the western cougar turned these sub-classifications on their ear when it determined there was no significant biological difference between a western cougar and an eastern cougar.
“The consensus now is that the difference between the cats is largely in the mind of people,” Shaw says. “They’re all cougars, and that’s that.”
But officials charged with protecting the Florida panther and cougars found in other parts of the Eastern U.S. are hesitant to lump all cougars into the same category.
“The genetic study leads some to ask why we bother protecting the Florida panther,” says David Rabon, a wildlife biologist for the state of North Carolina. If the eastern cougar is no different than the western cougar, and the western cougar is thriving, why should we spend precious resources nurturing an animal that is considered by many to be a dangerous nuisance? Furthermore, if you remove the subspecies distinction surrounding Florida panthers and eastern cougars, you couldn’t continue to list them as specific species on the endangered species list, which could lead to weaker protections of the cat.
“While genetically, the Florida panther may not be different from the western cougar,” Rabon says, “it’s distinct role in Florida’s ecosystem makes it very different and worthy of protection.”