Backcountry Science: Cougar Tales

“My cousin saw a cougar in his backyard last week.”

“I saw a momma panther and three cubs cross US-23 the other night.”

“You’d better be careful if you’re going hiking. My sister’s friend knows a guy whose brother’s coworker was attacked by a mountain lion while hiking on the Appalachian Trail.”

If you live in the Appalachians, you’ve probably heard stories like the quotes above. Heck, you might even have some of those stories yourself. That’s because cougars (or mountain lions, panthers, painters, catamounts, or any other of a host of names) hold one of the biggest places in Appalachian folklore when it comes to wildlife. Tales and legends of cougar sightings and attacks are common in our region…but when you ask wildlife biologists, you get statements like these: “the DGIF…(does) not believe that mountain lions currently exist in the commonwealth.” What’s going on?

Like so many other tall tales and myths about wildlife in Appalachia, the mountains’ cougar situation is one that involves both some truth and a whole lot of legend. And like many other cases, it takes a little bit of understanding how wildlife science works to sort out the facts from the legends. That’s why we’ll turn the lens of this installment of our Backcountry Science series on the curious case of Appalachian cougars.

Why Is There So Much Confusion About Cougars in Appalachia?

As mentioned above, there’s a huge disconnect between public knowledge (which says that cougars are everywhere and that nearly everybody has seen one) and the knowledge of professional biologists (which says that cougars are extinct from Appalachia) when it comes to mountain lions in the mountains. What gives? There are a lot of layers to understanding why these two positions are so diametrically opposed, but a great place to start is with the recent history of cougar/human interactions in our region.

Historically (before and shortly after European settlement), the Appalachians and the eastern U.S. as a whole were home to the Eastern Cougar (Puma concolor couguar), a subspecies of the more broadly distributed cougar (Puma concolor). If you’re unfamiliar with what a subspecies is, this is a scientific term used by taxonomists to highlight diversity and differences between organisms below the level of a species, often as a result of genetic and morphological variation. Cougars as a whole historically ranged across virtually all of North America, reaching into Central and South America, with multiple subspecies used to define distinctive variants of this species across the cougar’s broader range. The Eastern Cougar was just one of these many subspecies and was the one that occurred in our region. (Wikipedia, of all places, has a good general overview of this diversity and some of the controversy behind naming subspecies if you’re interested in the science of this species.)

Things began to change for the Eastern Cougar with the arrival of European settlers, though. For obvious reasons, large predators and humans tend not to get along, and the Eastern Cougar was hunted with prejudice across virtually all of the East as settlers expanded into new regions. This continued throughout the 1800s, with cougars often hunted with dogs and killed in large numbers. The near loss of whitetailed deer exacerbated this problem (yes, we also nearly killed deer off from the East – a wild proposition today) through the loss of one of the cougar’s most important prey items. By the early 1900s, the Eastern Cougar was virtually gone, with what was believed to be the last Eastern Cougar killed off in 1938.

Ever since this time, controversy has raged about whether cougars are really gone from the Appalachians. While cougars still exist elsewhere in North America and far from central Appalachia, the US Fish and Wildlife Service formally listed the Eastern Cougar as extinct in 2011. This was a decision that raised the ire of people all across the Appalachians and the East that claimed that cougars still live among us, some even claiming that these animals are still present in large numbers. While none of the above information on the history of the cougar in the East sheds light on why this difference in opinion exists, it’s an important starting point for understanding why so many of the reasons people have for claiming that cougars are still present are likely wrong. Below, we’ll expand on the above information and address these myths one by one.

Myth #1: Cougars have to still be present in the Appalachians since it’s presumptuous to believe that humans would be capable of totally wiping out a species.

Out of all the myths explaining why cougars are still present in the East, this one is probably the easiest to debunk. In a nutshell, this claim is used to support the presence of cougars in the East since it says that there’s no way humans would be able to drive a once widespread and abundant species to extinction. To understand why this is such a false idea, though, you have to look no further than our own region and its recent history. Since the arrival of European settlers in Appalachia, particularly in large numbers in the 1700s and 1800s, our region has been a textbook example of how humans can wipe a species out. As but a few examples, species like elk, bison, passenger pigeons, and the beautiful Carolina parakeet all used to be relatively abundant in our region but were wiped out remarkably fast in huge numbers, mostly thanks to overhunting.

Cougars are no different. Just like overharvesting killed off (or helped to kill off) all of the above species, the same thing has occurred with cougars in the East. A common counterargument to this claim is that cougars are still present in the mountains but have the ability to “hide” in deep, isolated hollows far from human settlements. The problems with this claim, though, are that even our most isolated parts of the mountains are still traveled frequently by biologists, rock climbers, hikers, hunters, and anglers…which brings us to…

Myth #2: Cougars are present in the mountains – it’s just that wildlife biologists are too inept to find them or too smug to try.

This claim goes hand-in-hand with the myth above about isolated populations of cougars lurking in way-back hollows and claims that wildlife biologists either laugh off public cougar reports or are too impotent when it comes to their survey skills to find them. This myth, though, is wrong on both counts. State wildlife agencies all across the Appalachians, in fact, routinely perform work to verify public sightings of cougars, and large-scale studies involving genetic evidence and other sources of data have been performed in the past to understand if the Eastern Cougar might still be around.

The conclusions from all of these studies have been clear: it is very, very – almost certainly – likely that any reproducing populations of cougars are gone from the East.

How do biologists make that claim? It’s not made out of overconfidence or a belief that the public is stupid – instead, it’s that we have a staggering lack of real, verifiable evidence to support that cougars still lurk our mountain woods. As an example, let’s compare the case in Appalachia with that of South Dakota, a region where cougars still persist. There aren’t a massive number of cougars present in South Dakota, but verifiable encounters there are still common. According to one source, for example, 27 cougars were hit and killed by automobiles across this region in just three years, and hunters encounter cougars in this region with a relatively high frequency. The key point here isn’t just to note that human-cougar interactions occur but that they happen in an area with a less dense road network and much smaller population than large chunks of rural and suburban Appalachia. So how is it that “cougars” in Appalachia appear to literally thousands of residents but escape notice by the hundreds of biologists and millions of cars in the mountains? The answer is either that cougars are outstanding tricksters and know to appear only to people who aren’t performing a scientific study, or it’s due to….

Myth #3: I’m outstanding at identifying wildlife, and there’s no way I misidentified a bobcat or other animal as a cougar. Don’t insult my intelligence.

And now we’ve come to perhaps the most important myth involving cougars in the mountains: everyone believes they’re a wildlife expert. This idea, though, violates one of the most important parts of wildlife biology, namely that no one – even professionals who have studied a species for years – can identify a species with 100% accuracy under variable conditions or when an animal passes them by in just a fraction of a second. Nature itself is variable, and when you encounter a critter in darkness, as it’s streaking in front of your headlights, or when it’s visible only at a distance through the haze of fog or rain, the human mind can play convincing tricks.

In fact, it’s almost certain that 99.999% of “cougar” sightings in Appalachia are actually bobcats or other critters that have been misidentified. This isn’t an assumption, either: we actually know that it’s often the case. High-profile cougar sightings in recent years have been shown to be bobcats (and yes, even housecats!) once photos of the animals make it to media outlets. As another example, a cougar attack was widely reported by multiple regional media outlets from Humpback Rocks near the Appalachian Trail in northern Virginia just this summer – an encounter where it would seem that identifying the animal would be simple, since it attacked someone at close range. After investigation by wildlife officials (and an admission from a family member), though, it turned out this also was a case of mistaken identity: the animal was a bobcat.

How does this happen? The answer lies in a couple of different phenomena. One is that animals can look much bigger (or much like what our minds want to see) when we see the animal only for a fleeting moment and/or when our visibility of animal is limited. If a bobcat streaks in front of your car while driving home in the darkness one night, chances are high that you didn’t have a chance to properly evaluate all of the 5-6 distinguishing traits that help in separating a bobcat from a cougar (spoiler alert: just looking at the tail or the size of the animal often doesn’t cut it). The same occurs if you see a cat slinking across a field a quarter-mile away through high vegetation on a foggy morning.

A “black panther” or a lanky Black Bear? Melanistic (black or dark) cougars do not occur with any frequency in virtually any North American cougar population, meaning that a “black panther” report is virtually always something else. (Image Source: WCYB on Facebook)

The second reason cases of mistaken identity occur is that even when a good look at an animal happens, bobcats and cougars can look remarkably similar to the untrained eye. Bobcats can occasionally be larger than expected, and a bobcat’s tail can also appear much longer to the untrained eye than one might expect, leading you to believe that you’ve just seen a cougar. If you don’t believe this, check out the #CougarOrNot hashtag run by Michelle LaRue, a professional biologist and expert on big cats. Misidentified “cougars” are remarkably common and can occur under a wide variety of conditions, even if you know what you’re looking for.

The Bottom Line

The upshot of all of this is that the “cougar” you (or a relative, or a friend, or a relative’s friend, or a friend of a friend) saw was probably not a cougar, and it’s almost certain that the Eastern Cougar that once roamed our mountains is gone. Does that mean that it’s absolutely impossible that someone could see a cougar in Appalachia, though? Of course not. There have been cases where escaped pets (now illegal in most states) have made it into parts of the mountains, and individual, lone cougars have been confirmed in recent years moving from the Western U.S. into areas west of the Appalachians in Kentucky and Tennessee. In fact, western individuals may have been randomly spreading out into our region for years, and this latter trend will likely continue…but from all of the data we currently have, those numbers are nowhere close to the levels that would support the hundreds of public “cougar” reports in our region each year.

In spite of this, though, your chances of seeing an actual cougar in our mountains are vanishingly small, and it’s almost certain that no reproducing population currently exists, meaning that all of those cougar reports you hear about from friends and relatives are almost certainly false. In addition, a cougar attack is something you should simply never have to worry about when you’re out on the trail. Instead, the next time you think you see a cougar or hear of a friend seeing one, consider the following:

  • If you saw something, think critically: did you truly get a good look at the animal, and do you know ALL of the traits that distinguish a cougar from something else?
  • If you aren’t 100% (or heck, even 75%) sure that what you saw was a cougar, are you claiming it was a cougar just because it would be more interesting if it really was?
  • If a friend reports a cougar sighting, do they have a photo? (Stories where someone watches a cougar “for hours” in their backyard are sketchy on their face due to big cats’ behavior and even moreso if the person had all of that time to watch and never took a photo.)
  • If a friend or relative shares a cougar photo with you, did you try to reverse image search it on Google? (In almost every case of a cougar photo from our region, this image search reveals that the image originated in Canada or out West. Seriously – try it!)

If you can’t eliminate each of the above possibilities, it’s highly likely that you’ve been duped or that you didn’t see a cougar at all. And that’s not saying that you’re stupid or don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s simply pointing out that it can be difficult to identify wildlife at just a fleeting glance…and that’s why we need careful, detailed studies of wildlife to determine their presence and status in the wild.

(Source for cover image at Wikimedia Commons)






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