Are ‘Extinct’ Big Cats Prowling the Appalachians?

Adam Gattuso

When Janet Clark began sharing her dramatic mountain lion encounter, she received mixed reactions. One neighbor, who works at a nearby conservation center, dismissed it entirely: “Oh, no, no, no. There are none here.” Clark thought, “Well there’s at least one!”

Talk of mountain lion sightings is commonplace in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which extend from Virginia to southern Pennsylvania. Many residents have no idea that scientists believe them to be extinct. I have even heard of two who captured photos.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) holds the vast majority of cougar sighting reports from the public to be invalid and influenced by psychological factors, including how the brain infers missing visual details in memory. The few sightings FWS grants as credible they explain as escaped or released captives.

TrackPic_BriarRidgeThe Eastern Puma Research Network (EPRN) disagrees. This volunteer organization has fielded and screened sightings since 1965, including more than 7,500 by trained observers with backgrounds in forestry, law enforcement, or wildlife management. EPRN claims to have verified 25 percent of these sightings, sometimes with photographs not screened by the FWS. EPRN’s own map shows the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia to be dotted with sightings, including a few cubs and several black panthers. However, “black panthers” are not native to the region, because black cougars have never been shown to exist—only black jaguars and leopards.

A surveyor photographed a track (right) in a field only one mile east of Shenandoah National Park. He said it was about four to five inches across, much bigger than dog tracks nearby. Could this seeming snapshot of a cougar pursuing a deer be a tangible clue? Rick Reynolds, a wildlife biologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries who handles mountain lion sighting reports, says that without an up-close examination of the track or a reliable size indicator, determination is difficult. “Tracks in the mud are always larger than the animal that made them,” he said. But he does say the track is characteristic of cat.

Reynolds suggests setting up wildlife cameras. A wildlife camera did confirm a mountain lion in western Tennessee in September 2015, that state’s first confirmation in over 100 years. Past Appalachian camera studies managed by scientists revealed nothing in the cougar department.

Scientists believe that in the indefinite future, mountain lions will eventually wander back to reclaim their historic eastern range. But if a small eastern breeding population does endure today, it would have survived in spite of past efforts by our species to exterminate them. Perhaps these wildcats wouldn’t need us to validate their existence—they would just ask that we leave them enough habitat.


Gattuso_FP_Illustration_wText

Scientists use hair, scat, tracks, quality photographs or video to confirm a mountain lion/cougar sighting. As cougars have been documented with increasing frequency in Midwestern states, many scientists see an eventual extension of their established breeding range as inevitable. Although very few have been confirmed in the East outside the range of the endangered “Florida panther,” many unconfirmed sightings particularly in the Appalachians lead some to believe a remnant breeding population of the presumed extinct “Eastern cougar” subspecies may yet remain, eluding open detection. Data from The Cougar Network and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2011 Report on the Eastern Cougar. Base map modified.

Johns Hopkins University
Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts & Sciences
Advanced Academics Programs

© 2017 Johns Hopkins University. All rights reserved.