On the trail of the cougar|Richard_Ffirstname.lastname@example.org|06/14/05 at 14:02:30|richard_f|xx|0|22.214.171.124|On the trail of the cougar
By DIANE TENNANT
Have you seen this animal?" the posters ask, and a surprising number of
times, the answer is "Yes!"
Near Charlottesville. In Sussex County. At Smith Mountain Lake. Outside
Winchester. Near Mouth of Wilson. At Wintergreen.
Seen it - sure. Prove it? Not so easy.
But it seems just a matter of time. With so many reports, and surrounding
states providing proof, Virginia may soon have to acknowledge it is home to
Stone cat, painter, puma, catamount, panther, ghost cat, mountain lion - the
cougar has more names than any other large cat. The fourth -largest feline
in the world, it once ranged the entire United States, Central America and
south to Patagonia on the tip of South America.
The cougar was ruthlessly killed off by settlers, livestock farmers and
modern development that severed the wilderness into tracts too small for a
wide-ranging, solitary animal . Solid gold in color, 6 to 9 feet long with a
third of that being tail, the cougar roamed territories as large as 400
square miles in the West.
A 1650 map of the Dismal Swamp area states, "Herein harbours Tiggers Bears
and other Devouring Creatures." The cougar was still listed as "plentiful"
there in 1880.
But the end was near. The last documented cougar in Virginia was killed near
Abingdon in 1882, and the species was soon declared extinct in the East.
Since then, cougar populations in the West have rebounded, to the extent
that many people think the animals could be spreading this way again, even
"There are states in the Midwest that are confirming cougars where cougars
haven't been seen in a hundred years or more," said Chris Bolgiano of
Harrisonburg, vice president of the nonprofit Eastern Cougar Foundation,
referring to Iowa in particular. "Coyotes are believed to have migrated
eastward out of the West, gone north around the Great Lakes states and come
down the Appalachian Mountain chain. Now coyotes breed in every Eastern
state. There's no reason cougars couldn't do that kind of thing."
Cougars live in Maine and Massachusetts and Delaware. Numerous, but
unproven, cougar sightings have come from Maryland, Pennsylvania, North
Carolina, New York, New Jersey and Vermont. Over several decades, 35
counties in Virginia have reported at least one cougar sighting. Many
reports are of black animals.
The Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, in 1952, reported on the "Norfolk County
panther," which had been spotted off and on for two years. "That thar
panther is in the news again," the paper wrote, saying that a hunter in Deep
Creek "came face to face with the elusive beast" and said it was bluish-gray
But state and federal wildlife agencies insist that there are no cougars,
black or tawny, in Virginia; at least, no wild cougars. Despite that
assertion, cougars are on the state and federal endangered species lists,
which means they cannot be killed, captured, harmed, transported, bought or
Three theories account for all of the reports: a remnant population of
native cougars, pets that escaped or were released, or Florida panthers that
have made their way north.
In the 1800s, naturalists divided cougars into 15 subspecies, including the
Eastern cougar. Researchers in 1999 determined that cougars in North America
were so genetically similar that one subspecies would do, but the 15 remain
in use. Based on that, state and federal wildlife officials say there is a
difference between Eastern cougars and cougars that are found in the East.
"Today, all of the governmental organizations like the Forest Service,
National Park Service, the state game and fish commissions, they all claim
that cougars don't exist in these states," said Donald Linzey, a biology
professor at Wytheville Community College and a founder of the Eastern
Cougar Foundation. "Yet, I'm getting all these reports from people who claim
to see them and take pictures. So something's out there."
Last November, Donald Early and Martha Holder found one of their cats nearly
scalped, lying in a flower bed by their house near Mouth of Wilson in
Southwest Virginia. A few days later, they found another cat, Pimple,
injured on the front porch. Her back legs had been clawed down both sides, a
hamstring destroyed. Her throat had been punctured, and some of her claws
were torn out as she fought her attacker.
Cat food began to disappear from the porch - not unusual, because they'd
seen an opossum snacking on it - but the heavy stone bowl was being moved as
well. Neighbors reported goats and dogs killed.
Then one evening, as Early was driving home, he said he saw a cougar cross
in front of his Jeep.
"It just sort of sauntered across," he said. "I've never seen a cat that
large, that close, without bars between me and it."
He watched as the cat went down the bank into a fenced pasture, toward
Potato Creek, just over the North Carolina line. Early dashed into the
"He was so shook he couldn't open a Pepsi," Holder recalled, but Early
decided to go back and try to make casts of the tracks using candle wax. He
didn't stay out long.
"I heard rustlings," he said. "There was something still down there. It was
dark, and I decided better of that."
At Wytheville Community College, where Early and Holder both work, he
mentioned the incidents to Linzey. "I could see his eyebrows raise up,"
Yes, cougars will eat cat food off a porch. Yes, they pounce on prey's
hindquarters. Yes, they bite the neck or head. Yes, yes, yes.
A few days later they looked for but couldn't find hair on the fence. Any
tracks in the mud had been trampled out of existence by cows. There was no
Holder still takes the dog for walks down the road, just not at twilight.
Pimple, because of the hamstring injury, stays indoors.
"We've had as many as 10 cats," Holder said. "But never a cougar."
Linzey is not surprised by the lack of evidence. Since 1979, when he
plastered 2,000 wanted posters around the state, he has yet to turn up
anything more definite than a rough cement cast of a paw print, made in 1990
near Smith Mountain Lake, which is not clearly either cat or dog. Yet cougar
sightings pour in to him.
Every report that Linzey deems credible is indicated on a map of Virginia.
Although he marks fewer than half of the reports that come in, the map still
has 204 pins marking reports in the state .
Pins signify a veterinarian who was familiar with cougars, a state trooper
who said he saw one eating out of a Dumpster and a couple who said they saw
cougars on three different occasions.
In the late '70s and early '80s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent an
employee on a five-year mission to prove, once and for all, whether cougars
were in the East. He couldn't find any.
But in 1990, a Forest Service technician told Linzey that, for 25 minutes ,
he watched a cougar with two kittens near the Peaks of Otter.
"We went out onto the boulders, but all I could find was some hair, which
proved to be deer hair," Linzey said. "But this is a man who has worked for
the Forest Service for 34 years. There's no reason for people to be making
up these stories."
In the late '90s, Shenandoah National Park considered issuing safety tips
for visitors and set up remote cameras, because several park employees had
reported seeing cougars. No luck.
In 2002, a motorist on Interstate 81 said a lion crossed in front of his car
"I hesitate to tell you this because it is like telling people you saw
'bigfoot,'" he wrote to a Roanoke newspaper columnist. "I decided to contact
the state police ... the sergeant I spoke with ... stated that there had
been numerous reports recently in this same area."
The many pictures Linzey has received are not clear enough to help. He
pulled out a 3-by-5 color photo of a golden field and pointed to a golden
dot in the center.
"It could be anything," he said.
Another photo, black-and-white, shows teeth in a decomposing carcass. It
came from Bedford County, where a man claimed to have seen a black panther,
shot at it and missed. Two weeks later, he found the carcass shown in the
photo but did not take any hair samples or the skull, which might have
proved the matter once and for all. Linzey couldn't see enough of the teeth
to make an identification.
The state game department investigated an indistinct photo shot near
Craigsville, measured the grass in relation to the animal pictured and
decided it was a bobcat.
"It sure looks like a cougar, but I wasn't there," Linzey said. "I didn't
measure the height of the grasses, and you can't see the tail." The picture
went into his file.
Some reports are just too old to investigate. Linzey has heard of deer
carcasses draped over tree limbs in Floyd County, like cougars might do, but
10 years after the fact. He heard the same thing about the Blue Ridge
Parkway, a year too late. He heard of another in the same region, a week
after the sighting.
The cougar was long gone by then, Linzey said.
"It may come back around that area in several months, but nobody knows
when," he said. "They're not an animal that has a specific home site.
Cougars just aren't like that."
So he tried something new.
When a cluster of cougar sightings came from Wintergreen in the early 2000s,
Linzey cut carpet in 4-inch squares, drove a circle of roofing nails through
each one into a tree and smeared a scented paste in the middle that he buys
from a Montana researcher at $50 for 4 ounces - enough for 10 snares. Linzey
put 35 snares in the Smokies and four at Wintergreen, hoping a cougar would
rub against one.
Several years later, he still has no hair samples.
"Black bear are literally pulling the pads right off the tree," he said in
April. "Now we're having trouble with, we think, squirrels, and they're
eating the lure but they're also pulling all the fibers out. They're not
leaving any fur."
Infrared cameras hidden in the woods have snapped pictures of bear and deer
and turkeys and raccoons and opossums, but no cougars.
Linzey has had more luck in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, where
alleged cougar photos were taken in two locations, in 2001 and 2004. Because
photos can be misleading or even hoaxes, Linzey is going for solid proof. He
got some cougar droppings from a mountain lion sanctuary in West Virginia,
and he's trained his dog to search for that scent in the woods.
"First time in my life I've ever asked somebody to send me a couple pounds
of animal scat, but I asked him to send me 2 pounds of it and he did,"
Linzey said. He and Brandi headed for the Smokies where, with park
permission and an orange "Search Dog" vest , they headed for the woods.
"In one of the areas where we've had most of the cougar sightings, she
located a number of different scats," he said. "I collected eight of them,
seven of which I would never have seen if it weren't for her."
He sent them, at his own expense, to a DNA lab in British Columbia. While he
waits for results, he's resisting an idea proposed by a researcher in the
"He suggested a pack of cougar dogs and let them see if they could tree a
cougar," Linzey said. "I really didn't think the park would go for that."
So cougars are officially extinct in Virginia.
However, Diana Weaver of the Fish and Wildlife Service said, "There are
certainly parallels to be drawn with the ivory-billed woodpecker," referring
to a bird thought to be extinct, reported periodically, but not proved alive
until last year in Arkansas.
So what would change if there are cougars in Virginia? Nothing, say some.
Everything, say others.
"I don't think anything would really happen," said Rick Reynolds, who
catalogs cougar reports for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland
Fisheries. "If the animal's out there and it's surviving, then the current
activities are probably not hurting it."
Bolgiano, of the Eastern Cougar Foundation, said the state would have to
educate people on how to live with cougars. "Beyond that, really, there
wouldn't be a great change," she said. "The Eastern states simply don't want
to get into it."
Linzey sees location as key. Cougars in national forests would need more
protection because hunting is allowed there, he said. "I really think it's
politics by all these agencies that claim it doesn't occur on their lands,"
he said, adding that without proof of cougars, they don't have to find money
for research, management or extra protection.
Cougars would need that protection because people fear them. But the cats
have killed only 17 people in 111 years. Dogs kill that many people each
Linzey, who helped with the five-year survey in the late '70s, made a pact
with the lead researcher that if they ever found a cougar, they would never
make public the animal's exact location.
"Some people would go out, right away, with guns, hoping to kill it," he
First, what's needed is proof.
"What the U.S. Fish and Wildlife needs, the Forest Service, the Park
Service, me, is evidence that we've got a breeding population somewhere,"
Linzey said. "If we could ever establish the fact that we've got breeding
going on, then that would change everything. That would change the whole
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policy."
A kitten, clear evidence of reproduction, was killed on a Kentucky highway.
But it had some South American genes and, even though it could have had an
Eastern cougar father, Bolgiano said, it wasn't accepted as evidence of a
The Eastern Cougar Foundation favors protection for all wild cougars, native
or not. Bolgiano cited a case where a Florida man killed a panther, and the
state couldn't prove it was an endangered Florida panther, although it
certainly looked like one. The "Similarity of Appearances" rule was
established shortly afterward in Florida , saying basically that any animal
that looks like a protected animal may not be harmed until it is proved that
it's not the protected species.
In 2000, the Fish and Wildlife Service denied the foundation's request to
extend that rule to all Eastern states, saying there were cougars in the
East, but no evidence of breeding.
Bolgiano said she thinks there may be a mix of native cougars, former pets
and migrant cougars from Florida. "That's good," she said, "because if there
are any remnant cougars, they are so few and far between they almost need
some addition to their population to carry on that genome."
In the long run, the lack of cougars in the East has played havoc with the
ecosystem, she said.
Without natural predators, white-tailed deer have flourished, leading to
disease and over-eating of plants that shelter songbirds, which has led to
fewer birds that eat insects, which has led to more insects that carry human
illnesses, and on and on.
Bolgiano has a book about cougars, her second one, coming out in September.
It is an anthology of what she considers credible cougar reports in the
"I hope it will advance the argument beyond where do these cougars come
from," she said. "The real question is not where they come from, but how are
we going to respond . It's as if cougars are offering us a second chance at
stewardship. It is extremely rare for a large predator to re-establish
itself. It's almost unheard of."
In May, Donald Early's neighbors again reported cougars.
One family, who own a goat and dogs, said they saw a cougar in their
backyard, not far from where Early says he saw one in November. Another
family thought they saw two.
The reports cluster, then fade away, then cluster again, as if a cougar with
a large territory is making regular rounds.
Early is looking for footprints again, and Linzey is hopeful.
"I'll keep trying," he said. "One of these days, we may come up with the