Cover of Chris Bolgiano's
book Mountain Lion. Painting by Heiner Hertling.
Sometimes it seems that I am the only person I know who hasn’t
seen a cougar in the mountains of western Virginia, where I live. Reports come
in from all sides. Lori saw a black one playing at the foot of Little North
Mountain not far from here, but she is a poet and a writer of fantasy novels,
and sees things in the shadows that other people don’t. My neighbor Willy was
startled the other night by a big, long-tailed cat that ran in front of his
car; he is a hunter and said he never saw anything like it in the woods, but
it was night and he barely got a glimpse as the animal streaked by. David saw
one on the outskirts of the small city down in the valley where he lives, but
he is, sadly, too often in his cups. Gil was riding his mountain bike just across
the state line in West Virginia and swears he saw one gliding through the green
gloom, but he runs a bike touring company, and if tales of eastern panthers
spark up his clients’ experience, so much the better.
The cat known as cougar, panther, painter, mountain lion, puma, catamount and
three dozen other names was officially extirpated in the East by 1938, when
the last wild cougar was shot in Maine, but reports of them have never ceased.
Sparse and scattered in the early twentieth century, by the last quarter of
it cougar sightings swelled to such a volume that they have become a phenomenon
in themselves. The eastern cougar is a mythic presence. I cast my mind in search
of it, as I walk through my hundred acres of woods along the flank of Cross
Cougars were the top predators in the eastern forests. The cats’ soundless,
solitary stalking is better adapted to deep woods than the chasing habits of
wolves. Many mountain stories tell of cougars dropping from trees onto unsuspecting
people, or covering a sleeping person with leaves as they do to cache their
prey, or screaming like a woman being murdered. A tombstone in Chester County,
Pennsylvania, dated 1751, records the earliest documented death by cougar, although
undoubtedly not the first, and definitely not the last. I feel no fear, though,
as I pad along the moss-carpeted old logging roads that now serve as forest
paths. I almost wish I did.
Settlers feared cougars enough to try to eliminate them altogether. That goal
seemed already achieved by the end of the nineteenth century, when massive deforestation
facilitated by railroads devastated much of the last remaining cougar habitat
in the Appalachian Mountains. The destruction of the region’s fabulous hardwood
forests by private loggers prompted the government to buy up seven million acres
of national forest and parklands, for purposes of environmental restoration.
Stretching down the southern Appalachian Mountains from Virginia to Alabama,
these now compose the largest complex of federal lands east of the Mississippi.
Although too much topsoil has burned or washed away for the forests to recover
their former productivity, trees have grown back. Here lies the eastern cougar's
best hope for the future. My property borders a national forest, on the threshold
of that geography of hope. If cougars are making it anywhere in the east, sooner
or later they ought to be in my backyard.
Or maybe they always have been, if sightings mean anything. But they don’t.
Even out West, where cougars are known to be present, so many sightings turn
out to be coyotes or dogs or feral cats that biologists simply label them as
UFOs – Unidentified Furry Objects. In the East, wildlife officials have routinely
dismissed as a crank or a drunk anyone who reported seeing a cougar.
Tracks are often the
only indication of the elusive cougar’s presence
The psychology of eastern cougar sightings is convoluted. People who think
they’ve seen a cougar resist the obvious and logical explanations. “It was a
dog,” I told Lori, Willy, David, and Gil, only to be met with angry stares.
They want to believe they’ve seen the rarest and most dangerous animal possible
where they live. Surely these cougars are cultural projections, drawn perhaps
from guilt for our collective ravaging of the continent, or from yearning for
the exoneration that the survival of cougars would confer. Surely, too, there
is an element of thrill-seeking in the sightings, in a culture addicted to the
fastest, highest, and fiercest, whether in machines, mountains, or animals.
Maybe the image of cat goes deeper than culture. Maybe it has been permanently
etched on human consciousness by eons of that peculiar tension between fear
and admiration, the anxiety of ambivalence. Cat sightings may be a primal expression
of the human understanding of nature.
But there is now much more to the story than sightings. In 1983, a third generation
coal miner named Todd Lester saw a cougar in southern West Virginia not far
from his home.
“When we made eye contact,” Todd said, “the cat captured a piece of my heart.”
But when he reported the sighting to local wildlife officials, they ridiculed
him, which made Todd determined to learn everything he could about cougars.
In 1996 he made plaster casts of tracks near the same place as his sighting.
Two independent experts confirmed those tracks as cougar. Buoyed by the affirmation,
Todd founded the Eastern Cougar Foundation (ECF) to advocate for restoration
of cougars in the East. He asked me to be vice president. Together, we have
compiled written validation from reputable authorities to document well over
a dozen cases of confirmed field evidence of cougar presence from Maine to Missouri,
evidence that includes bodies, scats, and videos.
So much persuasive evidence has accumulated that the wildlife establishment
is beginning to acknowledge it, sort of. Instead of denying all possibilities
of cougar existence, officials now routinely say that yes, there may be a few
cougars out there, but they’re all escaped or released captives from elsewhere,
not remnant natives. Therefore, these cats aren’t the eastern cougar subspecies
that is listed on the Endangered Species Act, and by implication aren’t entitled
to the protections of the Act. It’s a handy way to sidestep any responsibility
for a wide-ranging, threatening predator.
And it’s probably true that at least some cougars in the East are former pets.
There’s an astounding market, legal and illegal, in exotic felines. Endearingly
cute as kittens, cougars grow into unpredictable, voracious adults. Surely,
some number of fearful or exasperated owners have driven to the nearest forested
area and opened the cage door. Can former pets, most of them declawed, survive
in the wild? Yes, according to the experiences of several biologists who have
tracked escaped captives.
Another source of cougars in the East may be migrants from established populations
in Florida and the West. For the first time in the twenty-plus years of the
Florida panther recovery project, cougars have been radio-tracked crossing north
of the Caloosahatchee River in search of new territories. If the transmitter
signals didn’t prove it, biologists wouldn’t have believed the cats could negotiate
the intense agricultural development of the area. Cougar movements eastward
are being documented by confirmed evidence in mid-Western states where cougars
haven’t been seen in a century. They may even be swimming across the Mississippi
River. Nothing can be ruled out for this highly adaptive animal.
So to the possibility of a few remnant natives surviving in the most remote
areas must be added escapees and migrants. My own theory is that we have a proto-population
of eastern cougars, composed of mongrels. I say “proto” because studies done
as part of the Florida panther recovery program showed that a very small cougar
population can be extremely fluid, its social network too weak to hold individual
members from wandering widely in search of a mate or their fate, whichever comes
first. Field sign of such transient and highly secretive animals will naturally
be, to put it mildly, scarce.
I call them “mongrels” for a purpose as well. By its own tools, science has
now proved that subspecies purity is nothing more than a human concept, with
little application in the wild. A 1999 analysis of DNA from all 32 subspecies
of cougar found too little genetic variation to support this taxonomy, and recommended
collapsing it to six subspecies, including one for all of North America. In
addition, extant DNA from only six museum specimens of what were considered
the “eastern cougar” subspecies could be found, too small a sample from which
to construct a valid genetic profile. There is, in essence, no such thing as
the eastern cougar subspecies.
A cougar kitten killed by a vehicle in eastern Kentucky in 1997 illustrates
what is happening in the eastern woods: DNA tests showed that the kitten’s maternal
ancestry included South American genes, popular in the pet trade, but that the
father was a North American native. It doesn’t make a whit of difference where
the cougars in the eastern woods come from. They are all capable of filling
the eastern cougar niche. We should be grateful to them for their courage in
Agencies clutch at absurd genetic excuses because they don’t want to become
involved in what they think will be a hotbed of cougar controversy. This is
not necessarily the case. Establishment of viable populations of cougars won’t
require drastic changes from current land use, although they will depend on
slowing the loss of habitat to sprawl and establishing protected travel corridors
between the blocks of public land that provide the best cougar habitat. But
it has become clear from ecological research that the future of many other wildlife
species will also depend on these strategies, so this is hardly a new issue.
Maybe the agencies dread the prospect of engaging the public in discussions
about a predator that can kill people. Yet all western states with cougars have
developed successful educational programs on cougar biology and behavior, providing
models for eastern states. The general public can be reassured that cougars
attack people so rarely that getting hit by lightning poses a much greater risk.
Farmers can be reassured that livestock losses are extremely low and can be
avoided through use of guard dogs. Hunters can be reassured that cougars tend
to take young and old deer, which helps to stabilize herd sizes without unduly
impinging on trophy bucks. There may be a role for hunters with dogs to chase
cougars without killing them, as a way of training the cats to avoid humans.
The Eastern Cougar Foundation is exploring ways to integrate local customs
and love of place into strategies for recovering cougars in the East. And as
I walk on Cross Mountain I peer at whiskery arrangements of twigs and leaves
in the shadowy undergrowth, while my back awaits the sensation of cat eyes upon
Chris Bolgiano is the author
of Mountain Lion (1995), The Appalachian Forest (1998), and the
forthcoming Living In The Appalachian Forest: True Tales of Sustainable Forestry,
which includes a profile of Todd Lester in a chapter on cougars, coal, and the
For more information on
Eastern cougars, contact the Eastern Cougar Foundation’s website under construction
at www.easterncougar.org. To receive
a free brochure, send a self-addressed business envelope to the Eastern Cougar
Foundation, P.O. Box 91, North Spring, WV 24869.