Yarns about Mountain Lions

Mountain Lion
Photo: Zach Key (Unsplash)

Ask local folk if mountain lions (aka cougars/ pumas/ panthers) still prowl the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia and you’ll likely get a nod or they might bend your ear to tell a tale. But if you visit the WV Division of Natural Resources  you’ll read the big cats were extirpated over a century ago.

Do people who live in the country know better than wildlife officers who patrol it? It’s a touchy subject. Firmly held convictions about a secretive native species are harder to argue against than belief in the Sasquatch of Canada or Nessie in Scotland.

Few people want an apex predator in their backyard, but we are a quirky species. We want to be in control of our environment, to make it safe and productive, yet at the same time we love to celebrate the romantic mystery of wild places. I dread the day, if ever it comes, when we know everything about every square yard on a tamed Earth or when science completes its journey of exploration. Better the joys of search and discovery that the end of curiosity, where boredom begins. Better the frisson felt on the trail when an unseen beast bolts from the brush into the deep woods than being blind and deaf to nature. Novelty and surprise are sauce for stories to bring home.

A gamecam photo of a mountain lion dragging a white-tailed deer posted on social media prompted the following string of comments from people around Pocahontas County. [My added remarks].

  1. Holy cow! [Perhaps the commentator thought the photo was taken recently and locally, but neither the case]
  2. I saw one in Randolph County 25 years ago and my husband and I witnessed two young mountain lions near Huntersville in Pocahontas County a few years ago ‘mousing’ in a field. Our son had one on his game camera last winter near Minnehaha Springs [nearby].
  3. Saw one at Clover Lick about 15 years ago [also nearby].
  4. We told the game warden about two in Huntersville. She said she knew a momma had a pair in the rocks at Beaver Creek.
  5. I’m surprised they said that. Any warden we ever talked to said it’s impossible. But maybe that’s changing [diplomatic].
  6. My daughter saw one up back of our trailer on Elk Mountain.
  7. If we have mountain lions why bear hunter never treed one. None has been hit by a car. No trail cam pictures. Been hunting here all my life but nave (sic) seen a track. Not calling anyone a liar, just like piece of proof.
  8. And didn’t the game wardens attempt to prosecute the farmer that killed it? It was after his sheep.
  9. I know what I seen. I stopped and looked. It wasn’t brown but black and wasn’t a house cat. [No definite records of wild black panthers in the US]
  10. Wow!
  11. Mountain lions were there when I was growin up. They were in the backyard.
  12. If you killed one ye go 20 years in federal pen [really?!]. That probably why ye never hear of one bein killed.

You don’t need to take sides in the debate about mountain lions roaming the county. Standing on both sides of the fence at the same time is perfectly comfortable.

Some sightings by the public are undeniable, although most cases are probably mistaken identity. Authentic reports are too rare to make hiking there more exciting!

On the other hand, the DNR is also correct insofar that no breeding population of mountain lions currently exists. Convincing reports of individual beasts are likely based on escapees from captivity or deliberate releases into the wild after kittens grow up savage.

I heard a persuasive story this summer by someone I know from four miles away. When she opened her door, she saw a big cat in the backyard menacing her pet cat. She screamed at the top of her voice so loud her father heard it a quarter mile away. Knowing it meant his daughter was in trouble, Keith Mace grabbed a rifle and ran down the mountainside. No one suffered harm that day but the event added another chapter to the ongoing debate.

Keith Mace in Pocahontas County

Today, I draft this post on the first anniversary of the passing of my friend Keith Mace, who died from a tractor accident at age 81. He was born and lived most of his life on Mace Mountain, named after his pioneer ancestors.

Next Post: Peregrine Falcon

Living or Livid with Nature?

Black bear chew marks
Black bear chews the shed (again)

We weren’t always doggedly efficient extirpators—of insects for eating crops and stinging, of moles for spoiling perfect lawns, of predators for preying on livestock, and so on and on …

Not so long ago, humans tolerated annoying wildlife with a shrug. Further back, I expect we thought ourselves part of nature instead of dominating it. It has taken the toll of recent and projected extinctions to value biodiversity, and let’s be honest, more out of self-interest than awe. We want all kinds of bees to pollinate our crops and deer to satisfy our hunter instinct. It takes a leap to appreciate mosquitoes, although they are important in the diet of birds and amphibians we love. As they say, no gain without pain.

Do you remember my post on June 4 about an encounter with a bear ‘treed’ by hounds? I don’t condemn hunting per se (only the methods), but I took the victim’s point of view that day.

It’s likely to be the individual caught on internet video when it later stepped on our front deck. The camera died soon afterwards. I suspected flat batteries or power outage from a storm. But next time I came home I found the visitor had ripped out the cable connecting our satellite dish. This was the third such ‘attack’.

Rural living introduces us to more wildlife conflict. I have stories of woodrats chewing plastic water pipes, deer treating flower borders as salad bars, mice nesting behind the car radio, and woodpeckers hammering roof flashing. None were one-off. You have your own stories, and funnier when they happen to others!

Bears are like naughty boys. Not satisfied with disconnecting us from the digital world, our visitor overturned flowerpots, tore a game camera off a tree, and left a calling card on the shed. We might understand getting its own back after an ordeal with dogs but this time it alienated an ally. I consoled myself it didn’t break into the house, like bears raiding a fridge. There’s no ice cream to tempt in our home, but I worry about chocolate!

News of a rascal in the district tests even the poise of an ardent nature lover, much less others. Bruins on our mountain have broken into chicken coops, knocked over beehives and trashed apple trees. “Too many ‘barrs’ around here,” folk say in West Virginia, happy if bear hunters sweep across their land.

Policies that try to reverse the retreating tide of wildlife populations generate grumbling about government and conservationists bulldozing personal interests and rights. There is no better example than the row over gray wolves after the withdrawal of federal protection. It’s easy to take the side of charismatic creatures when viewed on a screen, but building a more tolerant relationship with nature starts at the porch door, and bears.

Next Post: Great-crested Flycatcher

Alpha in a Wolf Pack is a Fallacy

Grey Wolves
Photo: Dušan veverkolog (Unsplash, CC)

At dawn in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley I had my first and only glimpse of a pack of wild grey wolves, but they always loomed large in imagination. I follow them in books and movies, read about their conservation and reintroduction, and in a more contemplative mood see their shadow in my pets.

We hold ambiguous attitudes. We created stories of them as evil predators but also learned they are faithful mates and parents. One of the enduring myths is that a pack is ruled by an alpha male and female.

The notion of a pecking order in social animals began with chickens! Such an appealing theory, the biologist Rudolf Schenkel adopted it back in 1947 to explain the hierarchy he observed among ten wolves cooped up in an enclosure at Basel Zoo.

Human societies organize vertically according to rank or class and historical upheavals trying to level differences to the horizontal never lasted long. I experienced the bottom of the pecking order in the school playground as a new boy tortured on the ‘bars’ (iron railings) by bullies who hazed/ initiated us. The great ethologist Konrad Lorenz in seeking to understand human aggression projected it forward from the behavior of animals, although I wonder if we misinterpret animals by extrapolating backwards from our behavior!

Animals, it is said, avoid inevitable conflicts of a homogeneous society by creating social ranks, disturbed occasionally by a strong rival for the alpha post. But this attractive theory fails the test of wilderness evidence in wolves, although even experts find it hard to break the habit of referring to alphas in a pack.

Dave Mech is a world expert who has studied wolves for decades. In Ellesmere Island in the Canadian high arctic he got on intimate terms with them where they are fearless of humans. He learned a wolf pack is not an assorted mix of related and unrelated animals, as in captivity. Each is a family consisting of a monogamous pair of adults and their pups, sometimes with adolescents tagging along. Since we don’t regard our parents as alpha adults, neither should we think of wolves in that way.

The dark side of the error of believing that pack leaders violently rule over subordinates is when it is applied to the training of dogs.  Owners who harshly punish pets for disobedience or insubordination may achieve their goal by intimidation, but at what price? Much better and more faithful to what we now know from wolves, we should be head of the family, Mom and Pop to our pups. Likewise, professional trainers today prefer to reward dogs for being a good boy or girl through positive reinforcement (operant conditioning).

Studies in Norther America and Europe should have packed off the creaking theory. But in biology there always exceptions, and not just those unhappy creatures in a cage. Evidently, pecking orders can exist in unusually large packs and maybe I saw a spectrum from alpha to omega when the morning mist cleared over the Lamar River.  

Next Post: Downy Woodpecker