By Rupert Cutler
A lot of people think they’ve seen a wild mountain lion in Virginia.
The scientists tasked with keeping track of our native fauna with trail cameras say, “No, you haven’t.”
As moderator of a “panther symposium” in October at Ferrum College, where athletic teams are known as Panthers, I asked biologists on the panel who have years of data from cameras stationed along game trails in western Virginia from the Potomac River to the Smokies to give it to us straight regarding the presence or absence here of the critter variously called mountain lion, cougar, puma or panther.
Virginia Tech Wildlife Professor Marcella Kelly works among pumas in Central and South America. Since 2002, she and Tech students have maintained a motion-sensitive camera grid around Mountain Lake and throughout the nearby region. They’ve recorded bears, bobcats and coyotes, but no cougars. Her conclusion: “If you have a verifiable population, you will get photographs. We don’t have cougars here.”
Bill McShea, Senior Wildlife Ecologist for the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute at Front Royal, has has come to the same conclusion. “You’re more likely to see an armadillo here than a cougar.” He’s counted three armadillos, but no cougars, with trail cameras in western Virginia over many years of looking.
McShea acknowledged the situation may change. “The males are coming,” he noted. (There have been verified observations of cougars recently in Connecticut, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.) “But it takes two to tango,” meaning there won’t be little cougars here until females in the West decide to make the same cross-country trip a few adventurous young males have made recently.
A long-held view of the cougar is that of menace to the economic interests of man. As I was reading John James Audubon’s “Delineations of American Scenery and Character” in preparation for making a talk on Audubon at the Taubman Museum of Art, I ran across Audubon’s essay, “The Cougar.” Looking for new bird species to draw in Mississippi, Audubon encountered a settler who complained of a cougar’s “ravages” on his free-ranging pigs and calves. Audubon “offered to assist him in destroying the enemy” and joined a group of local hunters in tracking the cougar with dogs, shooting it out of a tree, and giving the carcass to the dogs to eat.
Contrast Audubon’s 1820s view of cougars with Aldo Leopold’s 1940s view of the importance of all species. Wildlife biologists regard Leopold’s book “Sand County Almanac” as a sort of Bible and frequently quote his line, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” He meant every species, including the cougar, has value and serves a purpose in the web of life.
I asked the Ferrum panelists for their personal views as to what position Virginia should take on the classification of the cougar if and when it does return. Should it be treated legally as a protected endangered species, as a game animal with open and closed seasons and bag limits, or as a nuisance animal with no protection? They said the public’s attitude will determine public policy, and that it will be influenced by whatever public education program about cougars is put in place before a new generation of cougars is born here.
Chris Bolgiano of Fulks Run, a freelance nature writer who co-edited the book “The Eastern Cougar,” observed that there is no public support for the reintroduction of cougars in the East now, and that rural citizens here will need time to get used to the idea of the presence of this solitary, wilderness-seeking creature and understand the slim chance of any negative interaction with cougars should they return.
Bolgiano predicted that the conventional anti-predator bias will fade and recommended, as a first step toward a sustainable cougar population here, that its habitat be protected through designation by Congress of as much National Forest wilderness as possible, noting that Southern Appalachian forests are uniquely diverse and deserve protection with or without cougars. She thinks that the return of a native predator, the cougar, would be “very good news.”
Panelist Jim Parkhurst, an associate professor of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech and director of Tech’s Center for Human-Wildlife Conflict Resolution, summarized the message of the Ferrum symposium with these observations:
“As a society, we need to have a serious discussion of what we do if [cougars] show up. We have done a less than stellar job of interacting with coyotes [and need to do better with cougars]. Perhaps the cougar can reassume its former ecological role as a keystone predator to help restore balance to herbivore [deer] populations [but] there will never be many of them because they require large territories. Somebody is going to have to start making decisions.”
Should cougars return, farmers with livestock near forests may need guard animals, fencing and protected birthing sites. Hunters may regard cougars as competitors for “their deer” but like the prospect of an additional “trophy” opportunity. Hikers and joggers may need to be aware and know how best to respond. Children in cougar country will need parental supervision. An educational program is needed.
There is value in thinking ahead, now, while we have fair warning that cougars are likely to show up here any day. My view is that they should be welcomed back into our forest ecosystem as an interesting and long-lost but valuable member of the team of predators that helps keep prey species in balance with their food supply.
As Parkhurst concluded, “We need to have a plan in place, proactive, ahead of time.”
Interested public, the ball is in your court now.
Cutler taught environmental planning courses at Michigan State University, supervised the U.S. Forest Service as assistant secretary of agriculture, headed Defenders of Wildlife, and served on Roanoke City Council. He now serves on the board of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy.