The Cougar Conundrum

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


The wilds of Wintergreen are home to an assortment of rarely seen wildlife. Species such as mink, spotted skunk, and flying squirrel are rarely spotted by hikers, hunters or any other outdoor recreationist, but we can verify their habitation of the land through camera traps and live traps. So how can so many people have “encountered” a mountain lion (also known as cougar, puma, panther) when no hard evidence exists for their making Wintergreen and our surrounding mountains their home? This issue of the Nine Minute Naturalist will tackle the much-debated topic of cougars in the Blue Ridge.

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (previously the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) maintains the stance that a wild population of eastern cougar does not exist in Virginia. This stance is in direct contrast to loads of phone calls, emails and social media posts about sightings of the elusive mountain lion. At Wintergreen, we average 2-5 reports a year of claims of mountain lion with the majority coming from mountain top guests and residents. The problem lies with the lack of hard evidence. None of the reports to the DWR have been substantiated by photo, carcass or track.

This is also the problem I encounter when determining if a population exists at Wintergreen. The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen has had the honor of being a part of a couple camera trapping surveys since 2013. The first was the eMammal wildlife species survey that deployed over 20 cameras at various locations around the property for many months. The second was with Virginia Tech studying spotted skunks using baited camera locations to study populations at Wintergreen every winter for 4 years. These two photo caches alone constitute well over 50 GB of wildlife photos from the past 8 years. Not one photo contained any animal that may be considered a cougar. In fact, Bill McShea, the professor overseeing the eMammal project, stated that at more than 2,200 locations not one camera captured an image of a mountain lion.

 

 

This eMammal project also illuminated human failings. The eMammal project was not created just to find wildlife but also to study how good “citizen scientists” are at identifying what they are seeing in still digital form. My natural conclusion before starting the project was identification was the easy part. I was proven wrong. On average, the project achieved an 82% accuracy at identifying photos of animals in a still digital photograph (Wintergreen “guinea pigs” scored closer to 75%). That means given all the time in the world and all the identification resources available, we were wrong on our identification 18% of the time. Photos can be tricky to analyze and thus come under scrutiny. If our identification of still imagery is hard to trust, that begs the question how trustworthy is a sighting we saw for less than 5 seconds?

The second data set I possess that leads to being skeptical of sightings by golfers on the Devils Knob golf course or by drivers cruising down Wintergreen Drive is my years supervising hunting on our open space at Wintergreen. Hunting as a management tool provides data such as what is harvested and what is seen in our backcountry. Not one survey in the past decade came back with a recorded puma sighting. If hunters sitting silently in scent proof clothing with scopes and binoculars have never seen a cougar moving through 4000 acres of open space, it seems unlikely to me that a mountain lion is hanging out on a crowded golf course. The other key is the use of hunting dogs by bear hunters. When chased by dogs in legal hunts in western states, cougars usually climb trees making easy targets by cameras, which everyone carries these days in the shape of phones. Not one hunter has reported or photographed a treed mountain lion at Wintergreen or in the entire state. It is conceivable that hunters sitting quietly would miss the stealthy cougar, but it seems much less likely the keen noses of a pack of hound dogs would miss the scent of this apex predator.

My last resource that leads me to doubt the presence of cougars is myself. Having spent 15 years covering hundreds of miles per year of Blue Ridge forest, I have had zero sightings, come across zero questionable carcasses, seen zero tracks, and found zero scat that might be attributed to an eastern cougar roaming the woods at Wintergreen. When I am not present in the woods, I make sure to have trail cameras distributed over the landscape to ensure I see what is moving through our forest. I currently have four cameras in obscure locations hoping to get the shot of whatever may come past.

Now to the scientific reasoning of a possible mountain lion encounter. Cougars have a giant home range of up to 370 square miles. They have also been known to make staggering treks. A cougar was killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011. The genetic study of the animal led scientists to believe it came from South Dakota which meant it travelled 1500 miles. That is amazing and opens the door to Virginia being the home for juvenile males pushed out of other males’ range. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency confirmed reports in 2015 of sightings in western Tennessee. It is believed that one of the confirmed photos was of a female mountain lion. That is the key to having a population – the presence of mates. A breeding population moves very slowly due to the natural hindrance of having cubs. The young cougars stay with mom for 1-2 years and slows down all migration to the east. Mountain lions are definitely coming to Virginia. It is the timeline that is in dispute.

I am skeptical of each sighting of mountain lion when no physical evidence is present. When identifying animals, you must first rule out the common before considering the rare. There will be a day when the rare appears, but until evidence clearly points to the apex predator of North America at our doorsteps, I will declare Wintergreen a mountain lion free zone.

The Early Invaders

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


Late winter at Wintergreen is a time of anticipation, looking forward to the wave of plants about to erupt from the soil. It just so happens that the first vegetation to begin their growth towards the sun are a couple nasty invasive plants, garlic mustard and coltsfoot. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will go into depth on the unique life cycle of two non-native plants that call Wintergreen home.

 

Garlic mustard

 

Garlic mustard is the bane of the Wintergreen forest, covering acres of our deepest forest where few invasive plants can compete. This plant comes to us from Europe, brought over due to its value in cooking and in seed form as hitchhikers. This plant is a biennial (it has a two-year life cycle) giving it a competition advantage. Garlic mustard reproduces only via seed, which can be viable in the soil bank for up to 10 years. Seeds germinate in early spring and form rosettes, a low growing clump of dark purple to green scalloped shaped leaves. Rosettes survive the first-year over-winter in a green (chlorophyll rich) form, which enables it to grow and habitat space well before most native species can emerge. Second year leaves are more triangular and begin to grow in early spring up to 3-4 inches per week. Flowering will occur in second year plants from late April to June. Plants grow up to 4 feet in height and produce 400-7000 seeds per plant. A dense stand of garlic mustard will produce up to 12,000 seeds per yard that will be dispersed via wind or attached to animals and humans. To add to their advantages, researchers have found chemicals are released that inhibit growth of plants in their immediate area. Once established, garlic mustard is near impossible to eliminate. On a site-by-site basis, garlic mustard can be controlled by mechanical removal or chemical application. Applying chemicals such as Roundup needs to be done with extreme caution at the height of plant growth to ensure you are not spraying desirable native plants.

While garlic mustard is quite the pain in the Wintergreen landscape, it is quite the useful edible plant. The greens are laden with vitamins A, C, E and some of the B vitamins. It also contains potassium, calcium, magnesium, selenium, copper, iron, manganese as well as omega-3 fatty acids. The flowers, leaves, roots and seeds are all edible but become bitter as they age. It is bad for the environment but quite good for the heart!

 

Coltsfoot flower

 

Coltsfoot is another introduced species from Europe. It is unique in that its flower appears before the leaves are formed, usually in March and April. The small 1-inch flowers are on tall stalks with reddish scales. The flowers are a bright yellow color and stand out in the drab backdrop of late winter. They appear similar to dandelion flowers from a distance. By May the flowers give way to white seed heads that look like fluffy cotton balls. When the leaves finally appear, you will understand the common name coltsfoot. They grow up to six inches across in the shape of a colt’s foot print. Unlike garlic mustard which can grow in the dense shade of our forest floor, coltsfoot will be found along our roadways or any other full sun environment. They are particularly fond of any disturbed site. The sides of the road at Wintergreen provide the perfect home for this invasive plant. Once established, coltsfoot is hard to remove. Hand pulling is effective in wet soil conditions so that you can get the whole root. Any piece of root left can grow into a new plant. Herbicide application is most effective. Application of Roundup needs to be done in a careful manner if the infestation is amongst plants you desire to keep.

Coltsfoot is also beloved as a medicinal plant. The plant contains mucilage, bitter glycosides and tannins which are thought to give the plant anti-inflammatory properties and act as a cough treatment. The flowers can be eaten in salad or combined with honey and added to tea to calm a cough. Although the leaves are bitter, they have been used in salads or as an aromatic tea. Another name it goes by is coughwort due to its implied medicinal qualities.

Despite my dislike for these two early emerging plants, it is good to see green life peaking out through the forest leaf litter. Once you take a second to be excited over green plants returning to our landscape, sharpen your identification skills. Now is the time to be able to identify and eliminate these undesirable plants before they can establish themselves alongside those plants we love.