Wildlife officials say mountain lions were wiped out in the Eastern U.S. long ago. But a hardcore group of believers insist the big cats are still out there. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young joins the hunt for the elusive Eastern Cougar.
CURWOOD: The big cat scientists call Puma concolor goes by a number of common names in the U.S.: puma, panther, mountain lion, catamount, cougar. The long list of names reflects the animal's wide historic range: people once encountered the cats in nearly all wooded parts of North America.
Mountain lions still inhabit much of the West. But wildlife experts say the cat no longer exists in the East; hunters and settlers wiped it out long ago. Or did they? From the Southern Appalachians to New England, hundreds of people insist the big cats still roam remote patches of the eastern states. And they're determined to prove the experts wrong. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.
[TRUCK ON HIGHWAY, INTERIOR]
YOUNG: Todd Lester should be asleep. He just worked the night shift in a West Virginia coal mine, then showered, pulled on one of his mountain lion t-shirts, and drove four hours to this remote part of the Monongahela National Forest. Now he’ll spend hours in the wet woods in search of something most experts tell him does not exist.
LESTER: Yeah it probably is an obsession. You know, somebody’s calling you a liar and you know what you saw. It does something to ya.
YOUNG: Lester spends most his free time traveling these back roads and trails in a quest for photographic evidence of the animal he says he caught sight of some ten years ago: an eastern cougar.
[TRUCK COMING TO STOP, DOORS OPENING, BOOTS TRAMPING ON WET TRAIL]
YOUNG: Each month he places a couple dozen camera traps--cameras triggered by motion and heat sensors--in an effort to monitor all of the nearly one million acres of national forest here.
LESTER: So camera number 18 got 30 on it. So that done real good. And just one cougar is all we need.
YOUNG: The coal miner has become a self-schooled cougar expert. He knows the intimate curves of cat’s paws by their tracks. He recites in hushed detail the deer carcasses left by a cougar’s ambush: bite marks on the neck, disemboweled and partly buried in leaves.
The cougar Tecumseh reclines in Coopers Rock Mountain Lion Sanctuary. (Photo: Gary Lake/WV Wallpapers)
And he knows the routes a cougar would likely take through this forest. That’s where he straps his camera traps to trees.
LESTER: Well, I mainly look for good well used game trails and old logging roads or railroad grades or something like that and I try to get in remote areas where there’s not a lot of human activity. That would be the places that a cougar would use. But it’s really a shot in the dark y’know, a cougar could come within 50 feet of the camera and cut off trail so its…
YOUNG: So what do you think when you’re collecting these up? Are you excited, you think maybe this is the one that’s going to have the shot on it?
LESTER: Yeah I’ll tell you, you take these pictures to Wal-mart, you know, and you take 20 rolls of film in and you give them to them and they do an hour service on them. One-hour-photo. Once you get all the pictures you know I take ‘em out to the truck and I’m like a little kid on Christmas morning, you know I can’t wait to open ‘em up and look at the pictures.
YOUNG: Last year’s camera traps yielded 639 shots of deer, 204 black bear—one destroyed the camera. There were 40 startled coyotes, 20 bobcats, various raccoons, hikers, hunters and mountain bikers. One shot was labeled unknown; the tawny animal was too close to the camera to identify.
LESTER: And then you go through all of ‘em and none of ‘em’s got a cougar on it, you know what I mean. Then your heart’s kinda broke, then you think of all the work you put into it and the time you put into it and it didn’t pay off. So one minute your emotions are real high and the next minute you’re crushed (laughs).
YOUNG: All this started for Lester back in 1983 while he was coon hunting not far from his home in southern West Virginia. He was looking for one of his hunting dogs and instead found a cat.
LESTER: Seemed like, you know, when we made eye contact, you know standing there looking at each other, and the cat turned and left, it seemed like it took a piece of me with it, you know. And I’ve always wanted to prove, you know, that they was here, you know. It captured a piece of my heart, you know, and really got me interested in it.
YOUNG: He later found tracks an expert confirmed were those of a cougar. Lester had heard of other such sightings around Appalachia. He started the Eastern Cougar Foundation to record them. The foundation was soon taking in hundreds of cougar accounts each year from all over the eastern US. But wildlife officials generally recognize only one small population of cougars in the east: the endangered Florida panther. So when Lester and others phone officials with cat sightings from elsewhere around the east, they are often met with skepticism.
NICKERSON: I’ll believe in cougars when one lands on my lawn piloting a flying saucer.
YOUNG: That’s Paul Nickerson, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
NICKERSON: Here’s the painful reality. It’s a wonderful romantic notion that wild cougars exist here because wild cougars engender a lot of passion just like wolves do. And everybody in their heart of hearts wants to believe that they’re out there but I’ve been looking at this stuff for 25 years. They’re just not here! They’re just not here as a breeding species.
YOUNG: Skeptics say most of those who “see” cougars really see something else: bobcats, dogs, deer. And the few sightings and tracks that are confirmed, like Lester’s? They say those animals are probably escaped captives, pets let loose after becoming unmanageable.
Mark Jenkins knows all too well how many cougars are unwisely kept as pets.
[JENKINS AND GROWLING CAT, GATE OPENING]
Mariah is one mountain lion kept at the Coopers Rock Mountain Lion sanctuary. (Photo: Gary Lake/WV Wallpapers)
JENKINS: This is Tecumseh
JENKINS: You can hear him talk right there, they make about 12 different vocalizations. And he’s just greeting us here.
YOUNG: This has aroused some interest here obviously.
JENKINS: Right, they do see the meat here so he’s getting a little excited
[CAT GROWLING, HISSING]
YOUNG: It’s easy to see why someone might want to release a cougar once it turns into 180 pounds of unpredictable predator. It’s also easy to see why people want them as pets in the first place. The cubs are adorable, and the big ones can still be as affectionate as your little Tabby.
[SOUND OF CAT MEWLING]
JENKINS: They do purr. They’re the largest cat in the world that still purrs like your house cat purrs.
YOUNG: Participants in the Eastern Cougar Foundation’s recent conference visited Jenkins’ sanctuary for at least one guaranteed cougar sighting. Many in the group claim to have seen the cats in the wild, and in some unlikely places: Ohio, Massachusetts or Rhode Island. That’s where Bill Betty says he spotted one not far from his home.
BETTY: Up from behind the log a mountain lion stood up and I saw the tail, it was probably three or four inches in diameter and about three feet long. That was really one of the most exciting moments that I can recall in my life.
YOUNG: Betty says he’s no tree hugger or animal rights type. He listens to Rush Limbaugh, works for a defense contractor, and he’s getting pretty tired of his co workers busting his chops about seeing a mountain lion behind every tree.
BETTY: People who see mountain lions or think they see them are often subjected to a lot of ridicule. And that’s a concern. You don’t want to have people to make fun of you. And that’s one of the problems we have, getting witnesses to come forward to talk to us about what happened. But I think really the difference between me and other people that do this is that I’m not guessing that there are mountain lions in New England, or I’m supposing. I know they’re here.
[PEOPLE MILLING ABOUT AT CONFERENCE HOTEL]
YOUNG: At times the conference seemed like a sort of support group for cougar true believers who must endure the scorn of skeptics. But there was more to it. Experts like veterinarian Jay Tischendorf were on hand for polite but hard-nosed analysis of alleged cougar evidence. Bill Reichling says he’s seen cougars in Southern Ohio. He showed Tischendorf some plaster casts of tracks.
REICHLING: I was thinking a cougar or cat with a young one because we found where one or the other had killed a rabbit right along a chain link fence so then I found this.
TISCHENDORF: I would really bet, and again I don’t know if I’d bet my paycheck, but pretty sure that this is a canid track of some kind. These claws if you look at the where base of the toe would be—
REICHLING: Uh-huh. It’s right there.
TISCHENDORF: Somewhere in this vicinity, you know.
REICHLING: I was thinking they were claws that came down but OK.
YOUNG: Turns out the tracks are of a dog and a bobcat. A Massachusetts man who says he saw a mountain lion from his back porch shares some video he shot.
[PEOPLE VIEWING VIDEO, COMMENTING]
MALE 1: The coloring isn’t right for a mountain lion. Looks like a Siamese cat.
MALE 2: Yeah looks like a siamese cat to me, too.
MALE 1: Yeah, tail’s not long enough for cougar…
YOUNG: The animal in the video is a cat--a house cat. Tischendorf is diplomatic with his debunking. He shares this fascination with mountain lions and says he understands why people want to see cougars so much that they think they see them.
TISCHENDORF: If I had to put my finger on it in a general sense I think the mountain lion probably embodies everything that many of us would long to be: lithe, muscular, intelligent, capable, confident, a survivor, adaptable. And I think it’s also a reminder that nature is very wild, so I guess a lot of us like to think that perhaps man doesn’t have all the answers, and that nature still has a few aces up her sleeve, and this puma in the east story may be one of those. But I think the true skeptics, the scornful skeptics, will eventually have to eat a little bit of crow because it’s hard to deny the hard evidence that we’re seeing right now, particularly in the Midwest and the Great Plains.
YOUNG: On the Foundation’s maps showing recent cougar sightings, the Midwest and Great Plains states are the hotspots. Scat, tracks, and photos have been confirmed across the area and a cougar biologists had tagged was killed by a train on the Oklahoma/Kansas border—more than 600 miles from its home range. It’s enough to catch the attention of the Cougar Foundation’s lone skeptic, biologist Dave Maehr. Maehr’s a professor of large mammal conservation at the University of Kentucky. He doesn’t put much stock in most eastern cougar sightings, but recent reports tell him the Western cats could be on the move.
MAEHR: Now I think something is happening, I think there’s a phenomenon underway where western populations or most nearby western populations are expanding for one reason or another. There’s some very compelling evidence that something’s happening that’s very different than what’s been occurring over the last century. And I think it is just a matter of time before they are back here.
YOUNG: Maehr says any official effort to reintroduce mountain lions to the east would certainly fail. Habitat is highly fragmented, and people would likely resist putting a new predator in their backyards. But the cats seem to be offering to reintroduce themselves. That’s one of three explanations for cougars in the east: that the cats are gradually migrating back to historic ranges, much as the coyote did years ago. The second explanation is that the few isolated cats in the east are just escaped captives. The third is that they never went away. That’s the theory coal miner Todd Lester believes.
[SOUND OF BOOTS ON WET TRAIL]
YOUNG: It’s what keeps him going back to the woods on weekends. He scans topographic maps dense with rugged hills, looks out from this ridge onto miles of misty green and thinks.
LESTER (walking and talking): Aw, you can go over here on edge, you know, look off, man that’s a lot of territory.
YOUNG: Mountain lions could have survived here.
LESTER: Lot of people we talk to they’ve got the impression that the whole east coast is one big large city y’know, a continuous city, and they say no, there’s no way cougars could survive there. And I’ve asked ‘em well have you ever been to the Appalachian mountains? They’s a lot of habitat for cougars.
[MOUNTAIN BIKE PASSES BY IN THE MUD]
BIKER: What’s going on?
YOUNG: Just then a trio of mountain bikers stops, curious about Lester’s camera equipment. And at the mention of the word cougar, mountain biker Joey Boyle gives Lester another sighting account to add to his collection.
BOYLE: I knew it was a cat, a big cat, because it had that big long thick tail. I rode with it for 100 yards or something and then we got to a dead end and there was a huge pile of dirt and that thing was just gone, it just bounded out of nowhere. It was pretty amazing.
YOUNG: Lester listens intently and thanks Boyle, but he’s remarkably unexcited. Boyle’s account is years old and Lester has taken in more than three thousand such reports. What he needs now is to go beyond sightings to hard evidence--the kind he’s sure his camera traps will produce.
LESTER: I woulda thought, you know, we woulda got pictures sooner, you know, if there was a population here but, you know, I still haven’t given up hope yet. I think we’ll eventually get a picture, I really do. Yeah, I just can’t foresee myself giving it up now, y’know?
YOUNG: Obsessions are like that. For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in the Monongahela National Forest.