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

Pug Marks in the Snow and Mind

Winter still grips the Allegheny Mountains. Rain alternates with snow as the days creep toward the official opening of spring. Snowshoe Mountain has accumulated 159” of snow this winter, which is far below the record although we are not yet finished with winter.

Cabin fever feels most febrile when clouds hang low with drizzle, and I wait for bright sunny days with fresh snow to go outside and strap on snowshoes for a hike in the forest and open spaces called ‘balds.’ I spend a couple of happy hours looking at fresh tracks that tell stories about the night-life I rarely see.

There are no tracks of red, gray or fox squirrels because the animals are asleep in leafy dens. Chipmunks are curled up in hollow logs and flying squirrels are nested in my bird boxes. Mother bears stay in their dens for suckling tiny cubs that only weighed a pound at birth, although a juvenile will occasionally wander out to stretch and look for a snack. The day I wrote this log in my nature journal there were no bear tracks.

But there were tiny prints from mice scampering over the snow for a few feet before they dove under. Of all the animals here, I would expect the smallest to hibernate or go into that borderline state of torpor; they must keep their metabolic fires burning to avoid hypothermia. Foxes and bobcats are grateful the rodents are awake, and a hole dug through the snow down to the grass was probably where one pounced on an unseen victim after hearing a murine ultrasonic courtship call. Sex behaviour is often unsafe.

I haven’t seen opossums or rabbits in daylight for months, but their tracks show they were abroad last night. The distance between prints shows they were sauntering across open spaces with a confidence they lack in daytime when they hurry on their way and are ready to dash for cover. One set of rabbit tracks led across an old field where they suddenly vanished, as if the animal had been snatched into the air, but there were no signs of a predator or an Olympic jump. The mystery still dangles.

Our resident striped skunk wasn’t out last night, nor was the coyote pack that patrols the area. As I walked round in a great circle I came upon prints two feet long made by a lumbering biped. Yikes, Bigfoot is here! If only I had brought children along to kid them about the imprint of snowshoes.

The footprints I dream of finding (maybe die to find) look like those of a coyote with four toe pads, but larger and wider and without protruding claws. A panther.

Many local people believe a few still hold out in Appalachia more than a century after they were officially declared extinct. But what is extinction? Is it a complete absence of a species, or the absence of a sustainable breeding population? There have been rare sightings over the years, and a few are hard to deny.

A friend in the DNR was called out one night to a report of a panther feeding on a sheep kill, and he captured it after anaesthetizing the beast with a dart gun. Isolated cases probably escaped from captivity or were deliberately released when they grew too large and wild to be managed. So, it is true that panthers haunt our forests, but mostly stalk our minds. People who live in and around these forests are reluctant to surrender that ultimate symbol of nature’s wildness, and I admit that even the slimmest chance of stumbling on pug marks in the snow brings spice to a walk in the woods.

Next Post: A Costly Thaw