This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct. That, in and of itself, is no big surprise. The big cat once roamed the eastern forests, including all of the Appalachian range, but the last native cougar is thought to have been trapped by Rosarie Morin in Somerset County, Maine in 1938.
What’s odd is that many scientist now believe that there never was an eastern cougar. The Charleston Gazette, The New York Times and other paper reported this week on the growing consensus that the eastern cougar and the western cougar are exactly the same species. This from The New York Times:
As a result of a genetic study conducted in 2000, most biologists now believe there is no real difference between the Western and Eastern branches of the cougar family.
Others say that the species doesn’t much matter. “They will all look and behave the same way, given a particular environment and variety of prey,” says Virginia-based hunting blogger Jackson Landers. He adds, “In terms of either safety or a desire to restore the old ecology of Virginia with a large, top level carnivorous cat, who the heck cares what subspecies it is?”
Whatever their genetic lineage, people all across the region claim to see these big cats. One Website — Cougar Quest — covering Virginia and West Virginia, has reports on hundreds of sightings, including a few colorful ones:
Clark/Loudon County, Virginia — I was working on the mountain property southwest of Berryville and had a man using a weedeater. He looked up about the same time I did. The mountain lion was very close to my helper who turned white as a sheet and held up the weedeater as if to defend himself. The mountain lion jumped from rock to rock up the hill, seemingly right over my head. It was a beautiful big adult mountain lion, very big with a long, long tail.
Frederick County, Virginia — The first indication that a mountain lion was on my property were the tracks in the snow. Several nights later, the moon was full and, as I looked out the window while getting ready for bed, I saw a panther crossing the field – it looked coal black, midnight black, not tan or tawny. A couple of afternoons after, I glanced out the window to see the panther dragging a deer carcass across the snowy field into the woods.
Hardy County, Virginia — I know that mountain lions survive in the East – I saw one. I was picking berries at the base of a mountain, under a high power line. Hearing a commotion up the mountain, I looked up and saw a large deer racing out of the woods, across the power line field, faster than any race horse I’ve ever seen. A mountain lion was almost on it’s tail and gaining ground, a fluid streak of muscle, long tail straight behind the body, making the cougar appear even bigger than it was. Before I could put down the berry bucket and focus my camera, they had disappeared into the woods on the other side of the field. It looked like a documentary film, only it was real life. A missed photographic opportunity that will never be forgotten.
Frederick County, MD — In March or April of 1995, I was waking from our home to my in-laws’ to return books and movies along the scenic route – through the old logging road which runs the property lines. My three dogs were with me and just as soon as we hit the wooded portion of the property, they started acting strange. The hair on their necks and backs was raised, they would freeze and act like they were scenting something. I did not feel threatened but was getting a little spooked. I heard a noise ahead of me which I thought sounded like my father-in-law using his tractor out in the hay field – like the metal bucket on the tractor scraping against a boulder (there was a very large rock pile boarding the field). I proceeded to the field but saw no sign of my father-in-law or the tractor. All of a sudden the dogs took off and I heard the cougar scream. My initial reaction was to look up. The only time I had ever heard that noise was on TV (Lassie, in particular) and there was ALWAYS a mountain lion in a tree or on a cliff about to jump down on the unsuspecting traveler. Then the dogs burst out of the woods and crossed the path in front of me and into the field. The grass was pretty high and I could see the cougar running away from me towards the “big woods” or where the property ended and several hundred acres of unoccupied property began. I distinctly remember his tail – it seemed to be 8′ long and curled at the very end. He was leaping and running – making tremendous strides in front of the dogs. I was carrying a plastic grocery bag of books and movies AND my camera! The last thing I was thinking was to take a picture. I whistled for my dogs to come and turned around and ran – I think I thought I was running for my life – even though the cat was running in the opposite direction.
Has a cougar crossed your path? Add your story to the cougar count by posting it below.
Also, there’s a lot of debate about where these cats originated. Do you think folks are seeing native eastern cougars, released pets and their descendants, or imaginary cats after consuming the wrong wild forest mushrooms?