A lifelong hunter, Steve Jones knows exactly what he saw on that cold January Day 12 years ago . Although he caught only a fleeting glimpse of the animal as he eased his way along a ridge high in Virginian’s George Washington National Forest, there’s no doubt in his mind.
“It was a mountain lion,” he insists. “I’ve been around the block long enough to know what they look like. It was brown, and it had a long tail. It was a mountain lion.”
Jones reported the sighting to a local game warden who assured him he would pass it along to a biologist. He never heard back from anyone. Since then, Jones is reluctant to tell his story. His friends mocked him, joking that he’d been drinking or “smoking something.” In fact, “Steve Jones” isn’t even his real name.
“I’d rather not have my name printed. People thought I was crazy back then. I don’t want them thinking the same thing now,” he said.
Why Are Eastern Cougars a “Myth”?
It’s easy to see why his claim has been dismissed by so many people. There hasn’t been a confirmed wild mountain lion sighting in Virginia or any other Eastern state in decades. The last known Eastern cougar, a separate subspecies from Western mountain lions, was killed in Maine in the 1930s. After extensive research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared the eastern cougar officially extinct in 2011 and removed them from the endangered species list in 2015. As such, they are no longer protected in many eastern states, including West Virginia.
“There is nothing in our hunting regulations that says they can not be shot. There is no mention of them,” said West Virginia Department of Natural Resources supervisor of game management services Chris Ryan. “However, I’ve been with the DNR for 19 years and there has not been a single confirmed sighting in all that time.”
That hasn’t stopped countless hunters and other outdoors enthusiasts from claiming otherwise. Skim through Facebook groups or Internet forums dedicated to hunting and you’ll see lots of posts from people just like Jones. They saw a mountain lion. Period. Some even include a grainy photo of a cat-like creature. While many are suspiciously blurry, a few of those photos are clearly that of a mountain lion.
“Most of those are taken out West. You can tell by the background or when you start looking around, you see the same photo from other people,” Ryan said. “When you ask for another photo from the same camera or the same spot, you never hear back. Other photos are clearly a bobcat, a bear or a house cat. In fact, I know some well-educated people who showed me a photo of what was clearly a bobcat, but they were convinced it was a mountain lion.”
He thinks most people see or photograph a bobcat, but other possibilities include coyotes, house cats, bears and even dogs. A quick glance, poor lighting, thick brush or a general uncertainty can play a lot of tricks on a person’s mind.
“It’s certainly not impossible that someone actually saw a big cat,” Ryan said. He points to a lion that was struck and killed by a car in Connecticut in 2011. As it turned out, that animal was a three-year-old male that had traveled from South Dakota, according to DNA testing. Numerous sightings tracked that young cougar’s movement through Minnesota, Michigan and then New York before it was killed. Researchers think the animal was searching for a mate and just kept walking.
Another mountain lion was sighted on numerous occasions in western Tennessee. Sightings were confirmed after two trail camera photos captured the animal and officials with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency actually verified the photos and the location. A Tennessee bowhunter shot a cougar in 2015, cutting hair and drawing blood, but he did not recover the animal. Genetic testing determined it also came from South Dakota. What was unusual about that lion, though, is that it was a female. In most cases, mountain lions found well outside their range are males, which typically strike out in search of new territory.
Related: Becoming a Mountain Lion Hunter
Evidence Doesn’t Lie
All of those lions have a single thing in common: there was undeniable evidence — either a confirmed photo or an actual dead cat. What’s more, the sightings took place in a relatively small area. Ryan says reports come from all over his state, but there hasn’t been one confirmed in West Virginia in decades. The last time a lion was known to be in Alabama was in the 1940s.
“With all the trail cameras out there, with all the people with cell phone cameras, you’d think there would be just one decent photo that we could verify. It would be a clear enough photo that we could positively identify it and that we could also verify the location by doing a site inspection,” said Alabama Department of Natural Resources non-game wildlife program coordinator Mark Sasser. “There are too many people and too many roads. One would get hit by a car or at least photographed.”
Consider Florida’s panther population. About 180 live in southern Florida, an expansive region with vast tracts of roadless swamps, national parks and rural farm country. Thirty of the cats were struck and killed by cars in 2015 alone.
Ryan says any lion that was seen once would likely be seen again on numerous occasions over the course of several weeks. His agency wouldn’t just get a random report now and then.
“Our phones would light up with reports from a small area if there really was one running around out there,” he added.
As Sasser said, there are simply too many people in the woods or on the roads and too many trail cameras to not capture some sort of evidence. Ryan points to an elk that escaped a Pennsylvania game farm a few years ago that made its way into West Virginia. Numerous people reported it within a short time and a few even had photos.
“We have 13,000 bear hunters, and many of them use their dogs to hunt lions out West, so I would expect a lion to be treed at least once. All those guys carry cell phones with cameras, so we would have something by now if we had lions in West Virginia,” Ryan said.
What about those black mountain lions? There’s no such thing. Black panthers do exist, but they are a color phase of a jaguar and are extremely rare. What’s more, their range extends from South America to western and south Central Mexico. Only recently has a jaguar been spotted in the U.S. along the Mexican border. And it was caught on a trail camera.
“We automatically dismiss the claims that someone saw a black one. There has never been a documented black mountain lion in the wild or in captivity. They don’t exist,” Sasser said. “They may have seen a bear or a black dog or a bobcat in lowlight conditions. Animals tend to look very dark when there isn’t much light out.”
He also shrugs off conspiracy theories. Despite what many people believe, his agency nor any other wildlife department in the eastern United States, has released mountain lions in recent history.
“People stop me on occasion and tell me they know we turned them loose. They are certain and no matter what you tell them, they refuse to believe me when I tell them we didn’t. It’s either to control the deer population or the coyote population, or some other wild conspiracy theory,” Sasser said. “I’m not sure why some people believe that, but I can assure you, there is no truth to it. It’s kind of silly to think that.”
What isn’t silly is to believe is that a Western mountain lion may actually show up any other eastern state some day. Why not? One ended up in Connecticut in 2011. Another was verified in Tennessee in 2015. A Georgia deer hunter killed one in 2008. That cat, however, was confirmed to have been a Florida panther, a protected species. He paid a $2,000 fine.
As lion populations in the western United States grow, it’s likely a matter of time before another one wanders east in search of new ground and a mate. If others made it across the Mississippi River, there’s no reason to believe others won’t again.
What’s more, a handful of people actually keep mountain lions as semi-pets. It’s illegal in many states, but unless one escapes or someone tells authorities, there’s no way of knowing who has one. Those pets have escaped on occasion. That could explain some reported sightings, but then, it may not. As Ryan and Sasser said, a lion seen by one person would likely be seen by numerous others. Captive lions in particular would most likely stay close to the easiest source of food — their cage.
In the meantime, keep your camera ready. If, or when, you see a mountain lion, you’ll get undeniable proof. Instead of feeling foolish for claiming something that hasn’t been verified in recent history, you’ll be able to tell the story with pride. And you can use your real name.