While hunting in the backwoods of southern West Virginia in 1983, third generation coal miner, Todd Lester, spotted a giant, long-tailed cat stepping cautiously down the mountainside. Remembering the stories his grandmother had told him, Todd recognized the animal as a cougar. When he reported the sighting to officials at the State Game Department, he was ridiculed. The cougar has been extinct in the Appalachian region for decades, he was told. Ever since that day, Todd Lester dedicated his life to learning everything about the animal, and proving its existence in this area. He went on to establish the Eastern Cougar Foundation
, designed to scientifically document the existence of wild, reproducing cougars in the East, protect them and promote their acceptance.
The big cat known as the cougar, panther, mountain lion, puma and a slew of other names, has been considered extinct from the Appalachian region for well over a century, yet sightings of the animal have never stopped. It was once one of the most widely distributed land mammals in the Western hemisphere. It ruled the forests as an apex predator, and was known to the Cherokee as the "Lord of the Forest." When European settlers came to this area in the 1500s, they were fearful of the large cat and therefore did the very thing that most humans do in such a situation: they hunted the animals with a vengeance. By the 1900s, cougars were practically wiped out of the Eastern region. Matters became worse as massive deforestation, and the construction of railroads destroyed much of their remaining habitat in the Appalachian mountains.
Today, mountain lions have taken on an almost mythic presence for West Virginians. Old Appalachian stories tell of the lions hiding in trees, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting victims. My roommate, Ashley, a native of southern West Virginia, remembers her family warning her of the mountain lion's infamous scream: "It's the sound of a woman dying, or a baby screaming," she recounted. A very wise forestry teacher once told me a story of one of his fishing trips to a West Virginia state park. He was sitting alone, silently in the middle of a lake, when a chill ran up his spine. He had felt the eyes of a cougar upon him.
In February of 2006, wildlife biologists confirmed the tracks of an adult and cub mountain lion in rural West Virginia. In 2005, Farmer Jason Brown captured a video of a black panther in Pendleton County, W. Va. Mountain Lion tracks were also confirmed in the Smoke Hole Wilderness Area of Grant County, an area which has been rumored to still contain cougars for over 100 years. Nevertheless, the DNR says that there cannot be mountain lions in West Virginia -- no way, no how. Despite the adamant beliefs of West Virginian natives, and despite thousands of claimed sightings across the region, wildlife officials continue to write off any legitimate cougar sightings as the result of an accidental or intentional release of pets.
I consider the eastern cougar to be the most important of West Virginia's endangered species, because officials refuse to recognize even the possibility of their existence! It truly amazes me how science has essentially thrown in the towel, on the what the Cherokee Indians called "The Lord of the Forest." The last, and only official field study of the eastern cougar was conducted in the 1980s; one would think that we would take more of an interest in researching the possible remains of the pinnacle of the Appalachian food chain. I don't know why it is so hard to believe, that in a state like West Virginia, with thousands of acres of uninhabited land, some remnants of these naturally elusive creatures may and probably do still exist. If there is any hope of re-establishing the cougar in its natural habitat, we must raise awareness and demand that the Appalachian region be re-evaluated and researched.
Photos: Bruce Tuten/Flickr and Tambako/Flickr