More and more images appear as photo attachments to emails claiming to have been taken in Virginia.
With some detective work they are often debunked as photos from a western state that are now making the internet circuit, maybe even more than once. While these reports are popular and receive a lot of “shares” on social media, no big cats have been found to exist here in Virginia.
Mountain lions existed statewide at the time of European settlement, but presumably were extirpated from the state by the 1880’s.
According to Handley and Patton’s “Wild Mammals of Virginia” published in 1947, the last Virginia mountain lion was killed in Washington County in 1882. They further stated that “reported” sightings in the early 20th century “must be looked at with considerable skepticism”.
The September 2009 issue of National Geographic showed the current confirmed range of cougars. Except for the Florida Panther, the closest confirmed wild cougars appear to be (at that time) in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arkansas and western Louisiana. The cats do appear to be expanding their range eastward in recent decades.
On average, DGIF has received approximately 3–4 sightings of large cats a month in recent years. To date, none of these reports have been substantiated by a photo, carcass or track. When we reviewed these reports, as many as 25 percent are of a large black cat.
There is no reported melanistic phase of cougars or pumas in the literature. Those few instances where the information appears credible, investigation by staff has always confirmed the animal to be a bobcat, black bear, domestic cat or dog.
It is commonly known that in the western U.S. where mountain lions are hunted, they are often pursued by hounds, because they are known for “treeing” relatively easily during such a chase. Estimates of as many as 70,000 hunters in Virginia use hounds to chase black bears, raccoons, bobcats, and foxes. During these various hunting seasons that exist across many months throughout the year, mountain lions have never been treed.
Monitoring wildlife populations with archery hunter observation data is a tool used by many states and provides a reliable index to population trends. Since the inception of the bow hunter survey more than 360,000 bow hunter hours have been logged in the field with no cougar observations.
Lastly, a common technique to document elusive species is the use of trail cameras. From 1997-2001, Shenandoah National Park personnel utilized numerous trail cameras, which had been baited with deer carcasses, in an effort to document the presence of coyotes. Hundreds of pictures were obtained of black bears, bobcats and raccoons, as well as some coyotes, but no big cats.
The bottom line: While they do appear to be colonizing some of their former range by expanding eastward—most recently lone cats have been documented in Tennessee—the NGS and DGIF do not believe that mountain lions currently exist in the Commonwealth.
Revised from: “Big Cats in Virginia”: The Facts Ain’t Lion, Virginia Wildlife, February 2011, by David Kocka and Dr. Bill McShea. David Kocka is a District Wildlife Biologist in the Shenandoah Valley and Dr. Bill McShea is a Wildlife Ecologist at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Ecology Center in Front Royal.
–Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries