Thursday, August 18, 2005
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Another cougar convert: this time it's my wife
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
- Virginia’s hunting totals produce mixed results
- A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk
- Forget the odds-makers; Salem’s John Crews believes he can win the Bassmaster Classic.
- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
One afternoon last week, we were driving a steep, rocky grade of our mountain farm in Pocahontas County, W.Va., when something big and fast darted across the haul road in front of us. It was a catlike creature that covered the space in seconds, its ears laid back, its elongated body vaulting with graceful, fluid motion.
“What was that!” I asked.
For a moment my wife, Katherine, said nothing, then spoke two words that can give you chills.
I’m not exactly a believer when it comes to saying that there are mountain lions -- call them cougars, puma or panthers, if you wish -- residing in Virginia and West Virginia. In fact, when it comes to mountain lions, you pretty much are a believer or scoffer. There isn’t much middle ground.
I’d have to say that I’m an active scoffer, and have promoted a cynical philosophy on this Web site and elsewhere. I demand beyond reasonable doubt proof, and I haven’t seen that: No lion chased up a tree by a pack of bear or coonhounds. No tawny body listlessly stretched out along the shoulder of a highway. No clear picture, and don’t try to show me one of those far away, fuzzy kind. No DNA evidence from hair or scat.
There has been some strong evidence, I have to admit. The most compelling are eyewitness descriptions from friends whom I respect as knowledgeable outdoorsmen. No question, they saw something. But was it a mountain lion?
Maybe I have treaded on being unkind in print to the believers even though I’ve never suggested they are kooks. Now I am destined to suffer the fate of living with one of those believers.
“It was a bobcat,” I told Katherine.
“No it wasn’t,” she insisted. Too big, wrong color, wrong shape, she said.
I didn’t tell her, but I was thinking that if it were a bobcat it had to be record size.
I only saw the top of its head and a quick glimpse of its back. Katherine appeared to get a better view. She has better eyes.
What we didn’t see was the animal’s tail. That would have been the clincher. A mountain lion has a long tail with a curling tip. The bobcat has … well, you get a good idea of what its tail looks like by just dwelling on its name.
When we reached home, Katherine got one of our guidebooks and turned to a picture of a mountain lion.
“Here’s what I saw,” she said.
“No way,” I said. “Here’s what you saw,” I pointed to a picture of a bobcat.
“You will never convince me that I didn’t see a mountain lion,” she said.
And I really won’t try. No one would have been thrilled more than me if I’d seen a long tail on that cat. I’d relish eating some crow.
No question, our farm once was mountain lion habitat. My great great grandfather purchased the land in the first half of the 1800s by selling venison. It was a time before market hunting was frowned upon. Records reveal that he killed hundreds of deer and some bears and panthers, as they were called at the time.
According to one account, the last record of a mountain lion in the region of our farm was one that was shot in the Tea Creek area in 1887.
The 1800s were a tough time for the big cats, a period when their fate was decided. Farming was encroaching on their habitat. The deer herd, a source of food for the big cats, was disappearing. There was an open season on mountain lions because they were viewed as a threat to livestock, especially sheep.
They were soon gone.
Are they making a comeback? Many of the old mountainside farms have been abandoned. The forest has reclaimed fields that had been set apart by split-rail fences. The deer have returned in big numbers.
Is everything back but the mountain lions, or are they also back? You can ask my wife about that, but you probably will get a different answer than I will give you.
But beneath my gruffness there is childlike excitement just to think these big cats might be out there, mystical and masters of invisibility, wild and free and yet undiscovered except in the eyes of a few believers whose souls are less caustic than mine.