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.