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For decades, some folks have sworn that cougars freely roam the Blue Ridge. And last December – three full years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nixed hundreds of verbal reports and declared the eastern species extinct – one of the mysterious, eight-foot-long cats was killed on a farm in Bourbon County, Kentucky (west of the Blue Ridge Country coverage area, near Lexington). So are they making a comeback?
Before European settlement, the cougar was the second most wide-ranging land mammal in North America next to humans, says Michelle LaRue, executive director of the Cougar Network, a scientific group that works with state and federal agencies to collect data and assess physical evidence, from DNA and tracks to photos and videos.
“As they were moving west, [hunters and farmers] were indiscriminately killing these animals because they were ‘dangerous’ and people were scared of them,” she says. “By about the early 1900s, east of the Rocky Mountains they were entirely gone with the exception of the Florida panther population.”
During the last 20 or 30 years, however, more cougar sightings have been confirmed in the Midwest, and experts estimate that there are now about 30,000 living in North America. Elk and deer populations have rebounded, allowing one of their chief predators, the cougar, to rebound as well.
“Sub-adult males are moving from the west into areas where there aren’t any other males that will beat them up,” LaRue points out. But so far, she says, no one has spotted a female. “In order for populations to establish in the Midwest and in the East, females have to get there. And they don’t move nearly as much or as far. So I think it will take a lot longer to actually have population reestablishment in the East.”