Tales of mountain lions in West Virginia abound. Many residents report mountain lion sightings or attempted attacks on pets. However, are they really mountain lions? And does the magnificent cat still roam the state? In the article below, we answer those questions. But first, it is helpful to understand a few mountain lion basics.
What Are Mountain Lions?
Mountain lions (Puma concolor) are also called panthers, pumas, cougars, and catamounts. The common name changes regionally. There were fifteen known subspecies of the mountain lion scattered throughout the Americas originally. Now, there are significantly fewer large cats found.
The fascinating felines are one of the largest cats in the entire Western Hemisphere. Adult males can reach up to 225 pounds and are 9 feet long. However, on average, they are 140 pounds and roughly 7 feet long (including their tail). Adult females are typically much smaller than males, averaging only 80-90 pounds.
Mountain lions’ coloring is quite distinctive. Their bodies are a shade of tan or beige most often. However, some coats can take on an almost reddish-orange hue. They have white on their bellies and chest and hints of black on the tip of their tails, snout, and ears.
Mountain Lion Habitat
The large cats have the largest historical range of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere. They originally roamed all the Americas — from the tip of Chile up to the Yukon. Mountain lions focus primarily on the availability of food rather than a specific type of environment. So they are found in a diverse range of habitats.
They call forests, wetlands, mountains, and grasslands home. You may find them hanging out behind cliffs at 10,000 feet high or meandering along at sea level. Mountain lions seek out areas with ample hiding spots. That way, they can hunt more effectively. That may include trees, scrubland, or cliffs and rocky areas.
Adult male mountain lions have a much broader range than adult females. They may roam up to 100 square miles, while females’ territory only extends 20 to 60 square miles. And the solitary animals rarely cross paths. Typically, they only join forces to mate or when a female is raising her young cubs.
Mountain Lions and Their Historic Range in West Virginia
Many mountain lions used to roam the West Virginia wilderness. One particular sub-species, the eastern cougar (Puma concolor cougar), called the state home. And while common throughout the state, it was most prevalent in the Allegheny Mountains.
However, as settlements expanded, many settlers feared that mountain lions would pose a danger to livestock. Some counties offered bounties to anyone who brought in a dead mountain lion. Randolph County kept records of the number of payments issued. From 1852 to 1859, county officials paid bounties for 73 eastern cougars.
So, the once widespread West Virginia mountain lion population dwindled rapidly.
Are There Mountain Lions in West Virginia Now?
Officially, there are not any sustained mountain lion populations in West Virginia these days. Many believe that the last eastern cougar in West Virginia was shot and killed in Pocahontas County in 1887. However, a sighting in 1937 calls that earlier date into question. But whichever date is accurate, the animal has been considered extinct in the state since the 1950s.
The Division of Natural Resources keeps a close eye on the wildlife population throughout the state. According to the department, a lack of physical evidence of mountain lions has persisted for long enough that they officially declared it extinct in 2011.
Mountain Lion Sightings in West Virginia
Even though there are no official mountain lion populations in the state, West Virginia residents regularly report sightings. And it is no surprise. The state has an extremely rugged country, one of the ideal habitats for mountain lions.
State officials recognize that the sightings occur and don’t doubt the veracity of many stories. But they assert that in cases of positive mountain lion sightings, the reason is man-made. Often that means the mountain lion was released from or escaped captivity.
For example, in 1976, state officials found two western mountain lions. Since western mountain lions are not native to the region, they had obviously gotten released into the area by someone. Wildlife officials captured those mountain lions and transferred them to their natural habitat.
Other mountain lion sightings are a case of mistaken identity. However, officials do not explain what animals residents may be seeing. And it is unclear whether wildlife officials investigate reported mountain lion sightings.
How to Avoid Getting Attacked by a Mountain Lion
Since there are no mountain lion populations still breeding in the state, it is highly unlikely you will run into one in the wild. However, it does not hurt to be aware of safety guidelines.
Mountain lions are predators that prefer hunting in lower light. So avoid hiking or other outdoor recreation around dawn or dusk.
Keep any pets or small children close to you on your adventures. And if you happen to encounter a mountain lion, pick your smaller companions up to make them appear larger.
Raise your hands to make yourself appear larger and slowly back up. Whatever you do, do not turn your back on a mountain lion. And definitely don’t run. Those actions will trigger the predatory instinct of the large cats.
And while you are not likely to encounter a mountain lion in West Virginia, you are not likely to get attacked. But if those unlikely circumstances happen to align, always fight back. Many mountain lion attacks ended better than they would have because the victims fought back hard.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Do black panthers live in West Virginia?
The term panther is another common name for mountain lions. But there are no known black mountain lions, currently or in the past.
Can you own a mountain lion in West Virginia?
No, you cannot own a mountain lion in West Virginia. The state passed a law in 2018 that officially outlaws private ownership of apes, large cats, and non-native bears.
Can you hunt mountain lions in West Virginia?
Mountain lions are not a game species.
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- West Virginia Metro News, Available here: https://wvmetronews.com/2008/01/02/cougar-sightings-persist/
- West Viriginia Department of Natural Resources, Available here: https://wvdnr.gov/plants-animals/mammals/#:~:text=Currently%2C%20three%20formerly%20occurring%20species,Randolph%20County%20back%20in%201825
- West Virginia Encyclopedia, Available here: https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1443