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Gone and Back Again: Cougars in West Virginia
May 31, 2012 - Jodi Burnsworth
Contemporary sightings of mountain lions in the eastern United States have often been dismissed. The relatively small number of witnesses has meant historically they were treated as something akin to those of Bigfoot or the Mothman. In 2011 the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar (Puma concolor couguar) extinct. The subspecies of the big cat had once roamed from eastern Canada to Tennessee. Today the critically endangered Florida panther is the only subspecies of cougar found east of the Mississippi. Cougars (also known variously as mountain lions, pumas, panthers, and catamounts) were seen as a threat to both people and livestock and systematically hunted throughout their range. In West Virginia bounties were offered for the dead animal; 73 were collected in Randolph County between 1852 and 1859. The last recorded killing of a cougar in the state was in 1887 on Tea Creek in Pocahontas County.
Still, in 1936 workers from the National Museum of Natural History discovered tracks at nearby Kennison Mountain. Sightings around the Cranberry Wilderness have a long history and continue to the present day. Some residents even claim to have seen ‘black panthers,’ though no black variant of the puma is known to exist.
Like all large predators, mountain lions require vast tracts of undisturbed land to survive. If eastern cougars were still around, they would be as likely to be found in the highlands of the Cranberry Wilderness as anywhere in West Virginia. However, it’s believed that many sightings are simply cases of mistaken identity, where witnesses have instead seen some other animal. Others seem to be instances where different subspecies of mountain lion ventured east from their habitat in the western US or were released into the wild by private citizens, as was the case in Pocahontas County in 1976.
While it appears that the eastern cougar is gone forever, there are indications that other populations might be re-colonizing the area. Lately there has been an increase in the number of sightings. And in recent years their have been documented cases of western cougars traveling from South Dakota to Chicago, and even all the way to Connecticut. At the very least this should cause people to pause before labeling every person a ‘babbling country bumpkin’ who says they’ve seen a cougar in the Mountain State. I personally know someone who claims to have seen a puma in the eastern forest. Besides being an experienced hunter, he also happens to be a PhD candidate in electrical and computer engineering.
Special contribution by Zachary D. Swick
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Alexander Crowell with a puma he killed, Vermont, 1881. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.