A photo taken by a trail camera on a wooded tract in Roane
County shows what some believe is a mountain lion. Also known
as a cougar, the big cats called the "ghost of the forest"
by Native Americans once roamed freely across the U.S.
By David Hedges, Publisher
Not unlike the grainy images of the Loch Ness monster coming up from a fog-covered lake, this photograph evokes more questions than answers.
But the primary question surrounding it is — could there be a mountain lion in Roane County?
The digital image, captured by a motion-activated game camera strapped to a tree, shows a tawny-colored animal with what some say is a long tail making its way through the forest.
A bow hunter who mounted his camera at the head of a wooded hollow, on a farm whose owner does not want the location disclosed, captured the image.
According to an imprint, the photograph was taken at 4:33 p.m. on Aug. 25, 2008. In the upper right hand corner is an animal walking out of the picture.
But the photograph, which two wildlife experts found inconclusive, is not the only indication a mountain lion may be in our midst.
The property owner says it was not until after he received the photograph that he heard another story. The previous fall, in October 2007, a bow hunter not associated with the hunter with the camera was in a tree stand about 150 yards from where the photograph was taken. This hunter reported seeing what appeared to be a mountain lion.
He was reluctant to say anything for a long time for one reason.
Mountains lions don't exist in West Virginia.
Or do they?
According to wildlife experts, the mountain lion, also known as the eastern cougar, disappeared more than a hundred years ago.
Mountain lions, more commonly called cougars in the western U.S., are primarily found in the western states from Montana to Arizona. The only confirmed populations east of the Mississippi are in Florida.
The W.Va. Division of Natural Resources does not think there are any mountain lions in the state, although there could be some obtained as pets and turned loose.
"DNR has found no evidence that there are any living in the state," DNR spokesman Hoy Murphy said. "We don't think there's any wild ones living out there."
But Skip Johnson, a Braxton County resident who retired after 35 years as an outdoors writer for The Charleston Gazette, believes they are in West Virginia.
In fact, he is writing a book titled "Long-Tailed Cat" that delves into the mystery.
"There's no question in my mind," he said of the likelihood that mountain lions exist in the state. "I've had some very credible witnesses.
"I don't think there's any question that people are seeing mountain lions," he said. "The question is, where are they coming from?"
According to Johnson, most DNR officials believe mountain lion sightings are a case of mistaken identity, or instances of captive animals that have gotten loose.
"But I think they are here, or passing through at least," Johnson said. "There may not be a lot of them, but too many people have seen them for there not to be something to it."
Johnson and DNR wildlife biologist J.R. Hill both looked at the photograph taken in Roane County. And both say it's difficult to tell whether it is a mountain lion or not.
"If my life depended on it, I couldn't say today what I thought it was," Johnson said. "The picture just wasn't distinct enough."
"I could not say it's a mountain lion," Hill said, adding that what some see as a long tail could just be the animal's hind leg.
Hill tells of another photograph taken in the Cisco area of Ritchie County a couple of years ago. The original snapshot looked like a mountain lion, but once it was blown up to an 8x10, the picture told a different story.
"After it was blown up you could see the short tail that wasn't visible in the smaller photograph," Hill said.
The short tail is indicative of bobcats, common in the state.
Johnson said mountain lions have rounded ears, unlike the pointed ears of a bobcat, and are tan colored. Bobcats have a grayish brown spotted or striped coat.
But the tail is what people will remember, Johnson said.
"Everybody I've talked to about seeing a mountain lion talks about the long tail," he said.
While a bobcat's tail may be 4-8 inches long, the tail of a mountain lion can grow to 30 inches.
Bobcats typically weigh 15-30 lbs. but a male mountain lion can grow to eight feet long and 160 lbs. Females are smaller, from 6-7 feet long and 80-100 lbs.
Hill says there are several reasons to be skeptical about mountain lions living in the wild.
"You'd think that coon hunters would tree one sometime," Hill said, "or with all the deer hunters in the woods someone one would see one and shoot it."
Because they are on the endangered species list, it is against federal law to shoot a mountain lion, if such a thing did exist.
Like other cats, mountain lions groom themselves. Hill said fecal matter found in the woods would contain some of the hair that makes its way through the digestive tract, if there was any to be found.
There has not been a mountain lion struck by a car. By comparison, in 2007 alone the DNR reported 288 bears killed on W.Va. highways, or as a result of illegal or marauder activities or from other non-hunting reasons such as electrocution or accidental poisoning.
Hill said not long after he started with the DNR in the 1970s he was involved in the investigation of a mountain lion killed in the Droop Mountain area in Pocahontas County.
"A hunter shot one," Hill said. "I saw it."
When an autopsy was performed, commercial pet food was found in the cat's stomach along with parasites normally not found north of Georgia, leading investigators to conclude it had been kept as a pet.
A DNR officer with a tranquilizer gun brought down a second mountain lion in the same area. That animal was missing its tail, which Hill said is common for big cats in captivity with other big cats.
With breeding populations recently confirmed in North and South Dakota, and an increase in reported cougar sightings in Missouri and Oklahoma, Johnson said it is not far-fetched to think that the mountain lion population is moving east, like the coyotes did as rural land once farmed returned to forest.
Johnson said the wanderings of young males are impressive. One radio-collared cougar from the Black Hills roamed 673 straight-line miles before it was struck and killed by a train in Oklahoma. Another made a circuitous journey of over 800 miles before its signal was lost in Minnesota, two miles from the Canadian border.
Johnson said there have been indications that point to the presence of some type of large cat roaming around West Virginia. He said near Morgantown last year a veterinarian who examined a dog that died after it was attacked said it suffered from sharp claw marks.
"Whatever it was it had to jump a chain-link fence to get in where the dog was," Johnson said. "I never heard of a bear doing that."
More recently there were reports that a horse near Weston may have been killed by a mountain lion.
The horse was buried before it could be examined, but DNR officers who looked at photographs taken by the owner said the wounds might have been added after the horse was dead. They also said the wounds did not look like those a mountain lion might make, and it did not appear any meat from the horse had been consumed. Had the horse been alive when it was attacked, the officers said there would have been more blood.
While the DNR continues to receive numerous reports of mountain lions, Hill remains skeptical.
"We get sightings all the time," he said. "We just have not been able to verify any of them.
"I'm not saying it's impossible they are around," he said. "It's just unlikely."
"I'll agree it's a mystery," Johnson said. "But I think the jury is still out."
So that leaves it up to those who examine the photograph taken in a Roane County hollow to decide.
Is the image really that of a mountain lion, like those that Native Americans used to call the "ghost of the forest" or is it something else?