WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT COUGARS IN THE APPALACHIANS
Cougars (Puma concolor) are also known as mountain lions, pumas, panthers, painters, and catamounts. They lived throughout the East when European settlers arrived. Many Appalachian stories tell of panthers following people, dropping on people from tree limbs, covering a sleeping person with leaves, and screaming like a woman being murdered.
By 1950, intensive hunting and logging had apparently exterminated cougars. However, people in remote parts of the Appalachians continued to occasionally report them. Reports increased over time and by the 1990s, hard evidence began to accumulate.
In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service analyzed a dropping found in Vermont as having cougar hair, presumably ingested during self-grooming.1 A home video taped in 1992 in western Maryland showed a cougar walking through the woods.2 Virginia Game Department personnel reported cougar sightings in southwest Virginia in 1995.3 A plaster cast of a track in West Virginia in 1998 was confirmed as cougar by a wildlife expert in California.4 Many credible sightings have also been made, but without supporting field evidence.
Some biologists and mountain people believe that a few native eastern cougars may have survived.5 In addition, there is evidence that cougars obtained elsewhere as pets have escaped or been released.6 State and federal wildlife authorities now agree that at least some cougars are living wild in the Appalachians, although the origin of these animals is uncertain.7
11994, Letter from Bonnie C. Yates of Natl. Fish& Wildlife Forensics Lab., Ashland OR 97520.
21994, Video from Leslie Johnston, Wildlife Div., MD Dept. of Natural Resources, Oakland, MD 21550
31997, Report on Min. Lion Sightings by John Houben, Wildlife Biol., USDA Blacksburg, VA 24060
41998, Dr. Lee Fitzhugh, Ext. Wildlife Spec., Univ. of CA, Davis, CA 95616-4154.
51981, Robert Downing, "Current Status of the Cougar in the Southern Appalachians," in Proceedings of Nongame & End Wildlife Symposium, Athens, GA.
61995, Chris Bolgiano, Mountain Lion: An Unnatural History of Pumas & People, Stackpole Books
71998, Paul Nickerson, End. Species Program, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., NE Region, Hadley, MA 01035
BIOLOGY AND BEHAVIOR
Cougars have been studied intensively in the western U.S. and Florida. Below is a summary of the scientific knowledge that has been gathered:
SIZE & COLOR: Adult males average around 140 pounds and 7 feet from nose to tip of tail (tail is almost as long as the body); females, around 100 pounds and 6 feet. Color is brown to gray above and whitish below. Black cats are reported seen but have never been found in the East. Young are born with spots that fade during their first year. (Young, Stanley, and E.A. Goldman. The Puma, Mysterious American Cat, Washington, D.C.: American Wildlife Institute, 1946)
DIET: Deer are the main prey, but smaller animals such as raccoons, opossum, skunks, rabbits, beaver, coyotes, and rodents are also important, especially for younger cats not yet experienced in hunting. Adult cougars kill an average of about one deer every seven to ten days. All parts are consumed except for bones, hair and intestines. (Maehr, David. "Social ecology of the Florida Panther," Natl. Geographic Research & Exploration 7(4):414-431, 1991)
POPULATION GROWTH: Biologists call cougars "self-regulating," meaning that they keep their own numbers low through a need for large individual territories, deadly fighting between males, and high death rates of young cougars. Even where prey is plentiful, cougar populations do not automatically increase. (Sweanor, Linda. Mountain lion social organization in a desert environment, Master's Thesis, Univ. of ID, 1990)
PREDATION: Cougars are ambush predators, rushing a short distance from behind cover at the rear or side of the prey. They bite the top or back of the neck to sever the spine. Cougars almost never land directly on prey from tree limbs or boulders because they couldn't get proper leverage for a neck bite. They often drag their kill some distance and usually scrape soil or forest leaves over it. Studies out West have documented that deer and elk numbers did not decline where cougars were present, and biologists no longer believe that cougars and other predators are the major factor in determining prey numbers. (Hanson, Kevin. Cougar The American Lion, Northland Pub., 1992)
HOME RANGE: Depends on amount of prey, location of other cougars, and type of terrain. Size is unknown for the Appalachians, but would probably be between 25 and 125 square miles. A male's home range usually overlaps several females but usually not another male's; female home ranges may also overlap. (Anderson, Allen. Critical Review of Literature on Puma, CO Div. Of Wildlife Special Report 54, 1983)
HABITS: Usually solitary, except for mothers with young. Mating is brief and occurs when females are receptive, which begins at about two years of age and may take place at any time during the year. Young stay with their mother up to 2 years. Daughters often settle near their mother, but sons travel widely in search of new home ranges. It is during this time of travel that cougars are most likely to encounter humans. (Shaw, Harley. Soul Among Lions, Johnson Books, 1989)
Cougars and Humans
Cougars are shy and avoid humans. Many people live entire lifetimes in cougar country out West and never see one. Cougars are known occasionally to follow people, apparently out of curiosity. Fatal cougar attacks are extremely rare: a total of 13 people since 1890, compared to 18 people killed every year by dogs. (Beier, Paul. "Cougar attacks on humans in the U.S. and Canada, Wildlife Soc. Bull. 19:403-412, 1991)
There are some simple ways to avoid problems if you encounter a cougar in the woods:
DON'T RUN AWAY. Running triggers a chase.
STAND TALL. Open your arms to make yourself big. Speak loudly but calmly. Keep eye contact. Back away slowly, taking care not to trip. Keep children close to you.
FIGHT BACK if attacked, with sticks, stones, or fists. Cougars can be driven away by resistance.
LIVESTOCK: Kills made by dogs or coyotes are frequently blamed on cougars. Dogs, a major problem, usually injure the hindquarters. Coyotes inflict many bites around the throat, flank and back. Cougar sign includes a bite to the back of the neck (occasionally the throat), large canine punctures, claw marks along the shoulders, and (often but not always) drag marks and an attempt to cover the carcass. Black bears may also bite and claw the head, but their claws are dull and don't pierce cleanly like a cougar's; they may drag prey but don't cover it; and they feed on meat. Cougars begin feeding just behind the rib cage to consume the liver, lungs and heart. Management practices such as bringing animals in during birthing or using guard dogs can greatly reduce losses. ("Living with Mountain Lions" by MT Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, CA Dept. of Fish & Game, CO Div. Of Wildlife)
(Acorn, Robert. Methods of Investigating Predation of Livestock, Agri. Branch, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada)
Many dogs make larger tracks than cougars. Cougars have retractable toenails that often don't show in tracks, but dogs with worn toenails also don't show them. The best cougar sign is 3 lobes at the rear of the heel pad.
Sounds: Cougars make many sounds, but rarely scream. Bobcats, owls, foxes and other animals make sounds that may be attributed to a cougar.
Scrapes: Males scrape up dirt and urinate on it to mark territory. Many other animals scratch the ground so cougar scrapes are hard to identify.
Sightings: Look for a size reference. Check for tracks, hair, droppings, kills, and other physical evidence. Make photos of tracks with a coin or ruler for size. (Shaw, Harley Mountain Lion Field Guide, Spec. Report no. 9, AZ Game Dept., 1987)
To Report Sign: There is a network of volunteer researchers interested in documenting cougars in the East. If you see or find cougar evidence, please contact: Todd Lester, P.O. Box 74, North Spring, WV 24869 (304/664-3812), or Dr. Donald Linzey, Biology Dept., Wytheville Comm. College, Wytheville, VA 24382 (540-223-4824).
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES
Cougar are part of the natural heritage, a tradition in mountain culture, and a source of pride in the Appalachians. They are extremely rare and are protected by law.
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