For countless millennia cougars, also known as mountain lions, pumas, painters and panthers, roamed the Appalachian Mountains of North America. Tales abound of early settlers witnessing panthers drop from virgin forest tree limbs onto unsuspecting individuals below.
Being the fourth-largest cat on the planet, cougars prowled from Alaska to the southern tip of South America, and nearly all places in between, including the entire Appalachian region. Growing to the length of 9 ft. and having the ability to leap as far as 15 ft., the intimidating cry of the painter “said to sound like a wailing woman” haunted the dreams of early English inhabitants of the New World.
Indeed, the modern forests of Appalachia are almost unrecognizable compared to the majestic, dense and unimaginably dark woodland that greeted the first white settlers only a handful of centuries ago.
One of the first men to write of the mountain’s ancient forests was a young surveyor by the name of George Washington.
While plotting the Kanawha River, he wrote in his journal, “Just as we came to the hills, we met with a Sycamore… of a most extraordinary size, it measuring three feet from the ground, forty-five feet round, lacking two inches; and not fifty yards from it was another, thirty-one feet round.”
Unfortunately, by 1920, the region, which is now celebrated for its natural beauty, had been reduced to an abhorrent desert, more closely resembling a bombed wasteland than a mountain wonderland described as being “almost heaven.”
For the first time in its history, the Appalachian Mountains were viewed as an eyesore. One visiting writer described the area as “a monotonous panorama of destruction.”
A victim of this widespread deforestation, as well as intense hunting, was the region’s mountain lion.
Like the Native Americans who were driven westward a century earlier, the panthers of modern-day Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Carolina and West Virginia, were either pushed west or died at the end of a rifle barrel or due to the scarcity of food.
By the middle of the 1900’s, nearly all cougars in the entire Appalachian region had vanished altogether.
In 2011, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Eastern Cougar to extinct, recommending that the animal be removed from the nation’s endangered species list.
Interestingly, a lingering question still remained: are there really no more wild cougars left in the Appalachian Mountains?
These days, if you ask the vast majority of state forestry employees serving in the region, they will most likely laugh and scoff at the notion of mountain lions still roaming the hills of Tennessee or West Virginia; comparing the sightings to those of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster.
Yet, for decades, tells have abounded among hunters, mountain men and farmers of the region who swear they have had run-ins with the large cats the experts say no longer exists. Even as a young child, I recall hearing the men gathered inside Moore’s Gun Shop in Max Meadows, Virginia, debating the validity of local claimants who said they saw these massive kitties slinking through the Southwest Virginia mountains.
Scientists counter that most likely these sightings are the result of individuals mistaking bobcats for mountain lions, leading to a regional controversy and conspiracy theories that are comparable to the Kennedy assassination or the blue and black… I mean white and gold… dress that floated around Facebook a few years back.
Though Eastern Cougars were officially declared extinct, dozens of reported sightings throughout the Appalachian Mountains have continued for years.
Just weeks after the Federal government declared Eastern Cougars to be extinct, a cougar was killed by a car in Connecticut. A New York Times article concluded that the cat was not an eastern cougar, but a wild cougar from South Dakota: “Wildlife officials, who at first assumed the cat was a captive animal that had escaped its owners, examined its DNA and concluded that it was a wild cougar from the Black Hills of South Dakota. It had wandered at least 1,500 miles before meeting its end at the front of an S.U.V. in Connecticut. That is one impressive walkabout.”
In September 2015, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency shared a trail camera photo of a passing mountain lion. The confirmation took place in Obion County, which is in western Tennessee, approximately 80 miles west of Nashville and only a few miles east of the Mississippi River on the border of Kentucky.
In June 2016 panic visited the Virginia mountains as a 911 dispatcher reported over the radio that a hiker had been attacked by a mountain lion along the Appalachian Trail in Augusta County, Virginia.
This report was quickly thwarted, however, by a United States National Park Service ranger, who wrote the following to Appalachian Magazine, “I was first on scene, and interviewed the victim, then looked for the animal. Based on all the statements from those involved, this was a bobcat. I have been trying to correct the record on this for two days now. The only time the word ‘mountain lion’ entered the conversation was when second hand information was repeated by a dispatcher, then picked up on scanners.”
Since 1970, no fewer than 121 mountain lion sightings have been reported to officials in 29 different Virginia counties alone.
Regardless of whether the increase in sightings can be attributed to a resurgence of what was believed to be an extinct cat or an invasion of Western Cougars, it is becoming increasingly clear to many that mountain lions do exist in the wild in the Appalachian Mountains.
Though the odds of you actually coming across a mountain lion while hiking in the Appalachian Mountains are incredibly slim, should you be so unfortunately fortunate, experts give the following advice:
STOP. Do not run, Do not play dead. Do not make any sudden moves. Maintain eye contact and stand tall, looking big and speaking firmly. Throw something NEAR the lion…
Also, you might want to take a picture when safe… because spotting a mountain lion in these parts may be met with the same level of skepticism as making public the UFO you and your buddy spotted that one night!
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