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Va., mountain lion saga going strong

 
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PostPosted: Mon Sep 01, 2008 9:06 am    Post subject: Va., mountain lion saga going strong Reply with quote

Despite lack of proof, Scott County, Va., mountain lion saga going strong
Published 08/28/2008 By Rain Smith



Are there mountain lions in Scott County Virginia? Sightings are abundant, but the evidence is lacking. MGN photo.

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Ghastly calls are heard along the North Fork of the Holston River. Shadowy figures are seen stalking the forest's edge at dawn. Grainy photos purport to prove something that does not exist is real, and active in our area.

This isn't UFOs or Bigfoot -- though, from the reluctance of some eye-witnesses to be quoted, you could liken it to the paranormal.

Rather, these are reports received from Scott County, Va., claiming mountain lions are on the loose.

The last confirmed sighting of a cougar in the state dates back to 1882. But over the past three weeks Timesnews.net has spoken with several Scott County residents, all believing they've seen big cats roaming their hills.

Weber City's Bobby Clark, 66, says he's heard the haunting scream-like cries of these cougars, that, aside from a small population in Florida, are supposedly not located east of the Rockies. He identifies people who have seen the animals along the Holston River, but none want to go on the record.

One of Clark's neighbors is willing to be quoted, and promises pictures he has taken of the animals in his backyard.

When they are delivered, red foxes seem to be the subject; a hunch later confirmed by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Regional Wildlife Manager, Allen Boynton. Even John Lutz, a puma proponent in West Virginia who has clashed with officials on the existence of "phantom cats" in the Commonwealth, concurred with the state's analysis.

But the stories of mountain lion sightings, both old and new, continue to surface. Over breakfast at Gate City's Campus Drive-In, former Scott County School Board member Mack Gilliam, 70, shares his experiences.

He says about four years ago, from the confines of a hunting blind in the Snowflake community, he watched through binoculars as cougars stalked deer. He adds that calves keep disappearing from his farm, and he hears the cougars' cries between 2 a.m. and daybreak. He compares it to screams of a woman being beaten.

"We'll never get rid of them, and they're getting worse and worse," Gilliam says over his coffee at the diner "We keep seeing more and more every year."

As if on cue, a man at the next table turns his head. He asks if we're talking about mountain lions, then relays the sightings his brother and father had in nearby Nickelsville, Va.

"Oh, they're here," says Clark in support. "There's too many people that's seen them."

Chasing Phantom Cats and Conspiracy Theories

Before departing the Gate City diner, Gilliam tells of a local business manager who was the first to see a big cat. That's followed by Clark leading the way to Weber City, where a prominent professional recently found peculiar tracks and droppings.

Both decline to go on the record with Timesnews.net. Those that do, such as Gilliam and Clark, say they fear for the safety of the community, particularly children.

But according to Scott County Sheriff John Puckett, even if cougars are present in our region, there is no need to panic. Citing the population of bears in Southwest Virginia, and relatively little interaction they have with humans, he said people just need to be cognizant of the dangers all wildlife impose.

"We may have some (cougars), I'm not saying we don't," Puckett said. "But the thing about it is it doesn't matter if we've got them or not. What's people worried about? We've got probably 50 or 100 bears in the county, and it's no different. People are as afraid of bears as they are mountain lions. I don't understand why people are worried about it."

Puckett speaks with a firm base of knowledge. As a game warden who served Scott and surrounding counties for two decades, he received about 15 to 20 calls a year reporting mountain lion sightings.

None were ever verified.

"If there's one (mountain lion) or a hundred, it doesn't make any difference," he said. "You just have to be more careful with your kids and watch what you do around your house outside."

Boynton, from the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries office in Marion, Va., also acknowledged supposed sightings in the region. He, "regularly gets reports of puma," in Southwest Virginia. Again, none have been verified.

Still, the stories persist. Macabre cries are heard here, a dog is killed there.

And, for locals who believe big cats are in their midst, conspiracy seems afoot. Three people who spoke with Timesnews.net believe game wardens purposely set the mountain lions loose, attempting to stave off the rampant deer population.


As fantastic or bizarre as this may sound, game officials across the country have heard the theory before. A former biologist with the state of Missouri, Dave Hamilton, now deceased, wrote a paper in 2006 for the non-profit research organization, the Cougar Network. It was entitled, "Cougar Hysteria: Mania in the Midwest & East."

Intended to educate game officials in region's that cougars supposedly do not inhabit, but reports are flowing in, Hamilton writes: "many accuse the natural resource agencies of being inept and uncaring, or involved in conspiracies ranging from 'cover ups' of predator presence to 'covert stocking programs' to control deer populations."

Hamilton believed that deep down in our psyches, people want cougars to exist in their environments. However, almost all submitted evidence of cougars throughout the Eastern U.S. turns out to be misidentifications of common animals, such as bobcats, foxes, coyotes and even housecats.

Suggesting such mistakes to those who submit reports, such as Snowflake's Gilliam, is often met with disdain.

"Uh, uh," he curtly says of his sighting through binoculars. "I know what I saw."

According to Boynton, when he receives mountain lion calls to his Marion office, he's careful not to tell people they are mistaken. The problem in verifying such sightings is the lack of concrete evidence.

Biologists need tracks or a body. Those filing reports simply want to be believed.

Mountain Lyin

According to Hamilton's "Cougar Hysteria" paper, the mountain lion "game" is: "largely played out in local bars, coffee shops, restaurants, the local media, and Internet chat rooms (the modern-day 'electronic taverns'). All of these are perpetual minefields for government workers."

In the instance of recent Scott County sightings, electronic misinformation has fueled the mountain lion murmurings. Everyone who spoke with Timesnews.net cited an article and picture on the Internet. It claims to show a Virginia game official alongside a cougar struck by a car in Wise County.

But the story is a hoax. The photo actually shows an Arizona game warden with a cougar hit on that state's roads. The exact same picture, with caption slightly altered, has circulated the web from unknown origins, claiming it was taken in West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

According to game officials, it is extremely unlikely that undiscovered cougar populations exist in Virginia. As pointed out in Hamilton's article, even where mountain lions are know to roam, bona fide sightings are uncommon. But evidence of their existence -- tracks, scat, road-kills, prey kills, photographs -- are easily obtained.

"In fact," Hamilton writes. "The case can be made that all across the Midwest and the East, the system of roads and highways provide a continuous 'cougar detection network' operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The department of Game and Inland Fisheries continues to keep an open ear to reports of sightings; await that crucial, hard evidence needed for verification.

Local law enforcement issues by-the-book, common sense warnings.

"It don't really matter to me (if they are present)," said Puckett, Scott County Sheriff. "I wouldn't tell people no different then what I'm saying right now: If they're around, or if they're not, you've got to be careful around any wild animals."

Believers like Gilliam keep fighting skepticism.

"What gets me is so many people have seen this thing, and the game warden acts like you're crazy."
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13years of dedication Studying "Cougars" taking sighting reports, Tracking & Filming the wild!
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