Cougars in Eastern Woods Give Many Pause

Commentary by Tim Rowland

In the early 1800s, pioneer Meshach Browning might have been among the most accomplished hunters in all of Western Maryland. At least we know more of him than we do of other great hunters of the era because he wrote of his adventures in great detail.

Browning recounts taking thousands of deer and hundreds of bear during his 44 years in the woods, but the animal that chilled his blood was the panther. “If any man would run at all, I think (a panther) would have been as good a cause as he could wish for,” Browning wrote. And this was before Hollywood got a hold of the panther, turning it into a screaming, glowing-eyed, tree-leaping monster of the dark forest.

Today, the Cougar Rewilding Foundation is up against these stereotypes and more as it works to re-establish — through natural migration or introduction —populations in the East, where they disappeared about a century ago. The primary problem, said board member Helen McGinnis, is that “none of the Eastern states are real enthused.”

That goes for hunters, wildlife departments, farmers and those who have bought into the belief that cougars are prone to robbing strollers of infants and such.

Mike Fies, a wildlife research biologist for the state of Virginia bears this out. Fies says he can understand the foundation’s mission, but that “overall public sentiment” does not mesh with the rewilding program. “I’m not sure how well [cougars] would fit into the current landscape,” he said. “Many areas no longer have a suitable environment.”

But the foundation hopes that the public will value the re-establishment of original American fauna that include cougars, moose, wolves and elk — a scenario that encourages a greater interest in ecotourism. Second, neighborhoods overwhelmed by white-tailed deer might be open to a natural solution such as big cats.

The Cougar Rewilding Foundation ( was founded in 1998 by West Virginia coal miner Todd Lester who, along with many others, was convinced that eastern cougars were not extirpated, as state wildlife agencies led the public to believe. Current foundation president Christopher Spatz said that through the years there have been plenty of sightings, but no physical evidence. As it turned out, he said, “There was a reason you don’t find any evidence.” The wildlife agencies were right; “sightings” turned out to be of bobcats or even house cats.

Cougars still live out West, but are rare east of the Rocky Mountain front. Breeding cougars are making their way back into Nebraska and the Dakotas; cougars have been spotted up north across the Canadian border and as far east as Connecticut. But these random animals are what are known as “dispersing” young males that are basically looking for love in all the wrong places. Females are unlikely to travel far from their home and family, so establishing an Eastern population through natural migration might take a century or more.

Of course, Europeans killed white-tailed deer to the brink of Eastern extinction as well, but this event drew a decidedly different response. While no one was weeping for the panther, states scrambled to pass game policies that would re-establish herds of nonthreatening deer. It was, perhaps, the most successful fish and game program ever.

Today, barely a community in the populated Eastern Seaboard does not have a deer-gone-wild story to tell. Aside from the damage they cause to cars and gardens, deer are problematic for Eastern forests because they can wipe out shade-tolerant understudies of desirable oak, maple and hemlock.

Aside from thinning the herd in the traditional sense, McGinnis said that cougars act as shepherds, keeping herds of deer alert and on the move to keep from being devoured. Without this encouragement, deer can both overbrowse and become comfortable enough to wander into residential surroundings.

The Cougar Rewilding Foundation has no illusions that its mission will be easy. States are reluctant to be party to reintroducing a predator that, if food is scarce, will attack small farm animals or (very rarely) a human. But Spatz notes that by far the greatest threat to farm animals in the United States is domestic dogs, and “once we get used to living with (cougars) it’s no big deal.”

Spatz added that regional and national polls reflect a public that is disposed to returning predators to their natural habitats. And like UFOs, so many cougar “sightings” indicates that people want to believe. That makes sense to Spatz, who said we have ties to big cats that go back to antiquity. Even if one never sees a cougar, just knowing that they exist satisfies a spiritual connection that transcends time. “There is something about these cats,” Spatz said, “that stirs people’s souls.”

Tim Rowland is a columnist for the Hagerstown (Md.) Herald-Mail and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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