In this case, we want to believe mountain lions are once again roaming the mountains.
Just like in the “X-Files,” we want to believe.
In my 28 years of covering the news here, I’ve found you can count on an “authentic, verifiable, swear-to-God-I-saw-it” mountain lion sighting making the rounds at least a couple of times a year. People will swear on their mamma’s grave, challenge you to fisticuffs and generally vow to be struck by lightning if they’re lying that they saw a mountain lion, a cougar, a catamount, a paint, a panther or whatever you want to call it.
By God, you better not doubt them!
The most recent account popped up on my Nextdoor feed last week:
“Has anyone else in the Arden area near Long Shoals Rd. or surrounding areas had any issues with mountain lions? Or seen any? I have 2 that decided to take up hunting and residence at the apartment complex I live in. I have heartbreakingly had to witness one kill my neighbors dog on May 24, I called all over trying to report it, told I was wrong because ‘there are no mountain lions in NC.’”
The post went on about “game wardens” coming out to make a report and set up cameras, although they declined to give their names, and one allegedly made remarks the person viewed as “sexist and cocky and rude.”
I reached out to the Nextdoor poster but didn’t hear back.
The post garnered more than 150 comments, including quite a few from other folks who swore they, too, have seen mountain lions in the wild hereabouts.
I did hear back from Colleen Olfenbuttel, a black bear and furbearer biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. She’s been in this line of work for 24 years and has lived in western states that actually have mountain lions.
Olfenbuttel is flat-out definitive in assessing the possibility of mountain lions roaming around a highly populated area like Arden, or anywhere in North Carolina.
“We have no evidence that there is a breeding population of mountain lions in North Carolina,” Olfenbuttel said. “There’s no evidence at all.”
I told her that the “breeding population” description might leave the door open a bit for some folks, so she clarified.
“All I can tell them is, ‘I don’t know what you saw, but there’s no evidence of wild mountain lions in North Carolina,” she said.
Last wild mountain lion spotted in the 1800s
Sure, before European settlement we had plenty of mountain lions, which explains why Western Carolina University is the Catamounts, but “our forefathers did a pretty good job of eradicating that large animal from the landscape, including in North Carolina,” Olfenbuttel said.
“The last sighting we had of an eastern cougar in North Carolina was in 1886 in Highlands in Macon County,” Olfenbuttel told me. “Since that time, of course, we get reports off and on, but none of them proved to be mountain lions. They’re either hoaxes or mistaken identity.”
We did have a case down east where some ding-dong who kept cougars as pets released them into the wild, only to have them turn up at a dump to scavenge garbage. Those two animals were shot, and they had tattoo markings inside their mouths and had been spayed or neutered.
We’ve had no verified sightings anywhere else, but you never know when some fool keeping a big cat at home (the litter box alone has deterred me) will turn it loose or have it escape.
Again, we’ve had no confirmed sightings of wild mountain lions since that 1886 event.
And that means no verified cougar tracks, no scat, no fur, no pictures, no videos. When you consider we now live in a world where cameras are just about everywhere, including in nearly everyone’s pocket, thanks to cell phones, that’s a pretty strong indication the big cats just aren’t out there.
Olfenbuttel and a colleague have estimated North Carolina probably has between 500,000 and a million game cameras all over the state, and yet, no video of a mountain lion has turned up.
“It would be hard in this day and age, with all those game cameras on the landscape, combined with all the people that live in North Carolina and all the people that recreate outside in North Carolina, as well as all the development that’s occurring, for large animals such as a mountain lion to go undetected,” Olfenbuttel said, noting that in places that actually do have the big cats, such as Florida and states out west, evidence is pretty common.
Also, we’ve got a lot of hunters in the Tar Heel state, including bear and raccoon hunters that use hounds, and Olfenbuttel said they have yet to get a report of hunters treeing a mountain lion.
They do investigate reports of mountain lions, though, and Olfenbuttel said wildlife biologists, not game wardens, would be the ones to investigate and install cameras, if warranted. In the Arden case, where a mountain lion supposedly is roaming around an apartment complex and has killed a dog, Olfenbuttel said flatly, “I would have heard about it.”
From stuffed cougars to fake paw prints
Hoaxes abound when it comes to cougar sightings, Olfenbuttel said. She wasn’t speaking about the Arden case specifically, but in general.
The most common one is someone goes online and finds a photo of a mountain lion out west, maybe off of a game camera, and puts it out on social media as their own picture. Sometimes, you can tell it’s from a game camera, Olftenbuttel said, but the time stamp and other information that’s automatically recorded is “conveniently cropped out.”
In one case, a guy bought a casting of a cougar paw print online (yes, you can do that), and put it out in the woods, claiming it was proof of a cougar walking about. Problem was it was the only print, and as Olfenbuttel points out, cougars typically have four legs and tend to leave a lot more prints than just one.
Also, the casting wasn’t even buried properly, so upon close inspection it was clearly faked.
Perhaps the most elaborate hoax Olfenbuttel knows of occurred in the Piedmont, where a man had photographed a mountain lion on the edge of his property. It was pretty convincing, Olfenbuttel said, until they figured out it was a taxidermied mountain lion.
Of course, a lot of good folks do see a larger feline and are convinced it’s a mountain lion. But a bobcat, despite a short tail and distinctive ears, can fool even seasoned viewers, Olfenbuttel said. She cited a researcher she knows who spotted a big cat in Virginia, where he retired, and told her he initially was sure it was a cougar.
It was a bobcat. Here in North Carolina, we have bobcats in every county. Typically, they’re between 24 and 40 inches long, including the tail, and usually weigh between 10 and 30 pounds.
“The bobcat’s fur is short, dense and soft and is light brown to reddish brown on the back,” according to the WRC website. “The underside and insides of the legs are white with dark spots or bars.”
Cougars are much larger, have a solid tan body and a long tail. “Adult males may be more than 8 feet long (from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail), and can weigh between 130 and 150 pounds. Adult females can be 7 feet long and weigh between 65 and 90 pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.
Going back to the Arden situation, or similar ones, don’t get the idea that the Wildlife Resources Commission doesn’t take this seriously.
She pointed to a 1977 research paper in which the author pored through 370 reports of mountain lions in North Carolina but didn’t find any evidence to support confirmation, as well as a 1981 track survey in the Blue Ridge Mountains and national forests that turned up nothing. In that latter survey, researchers put up snares, and looked for tracks and fur, but they still came up empty.
Myth busted: There are no black panthers!
Last week Olfenbuttel said she saw an online hunting forum where someone claimed we have black panthers in North Carolina.
“It provided a picture he claimed was from his hunting property,” Olfenbuttel said. “Well, the picture was of a black cat. But it was clear to me it was a domestic cat — just the shape, the size, everything about it.”
Then she dropped a bomb on me and every sports-loving resident of this fine state.
“There’s no such thing as a black panther,” Olfenbuttel said.
Say what?! Where do I begin? Is Marvel Studios aware? Do the Carolina Panthers know about this?
“I’m sure that if they do, they’re just ignoring it,” Olfenbuttel said with a hearty laugh, noting that she’s a fan of the NFL team. “They’ve chosen a mythical beast. That kind of does lead to this false narrative that there’s black panthers that exist, let alone in North Carolina.”
She explained that when you see pictures of “black panthers,” it’s actually either a “melanistic” leopard or jaguar. Melanistic is a fancy word for “an increased amount of black or nearly black pigmentation,” according to Merriam-Webster.
These big black cats are essentially all black spots. Also, we don’t have jaguars or leopards in America.
Sorry, Carolina Panthers. You’re living a lie.
Also, mountain lions are not screamers
I asked Olfenbuttel about the notion of the big cat screaming during the alleged attack by the apartments, as well as the possibility of a mountain lion killing a dog. People always say mountain lions sound like a woman screaming, but Olfenbuttel has more bad news here.
“The funniest thing is, they don’t,” Olfenbuttel said. “Whenever I hear someone say they sound like a woman screaming, I’m like, ‘You just heard a fox.’ That’s exactly how a fox sounds.
“People, when they hear that sound, they’re not expecting a little gray fox or red fox to make that kind of vocalization, but no, they do. And so whenever someone says I know it’s a mountain lion because I heard it screaming like a woman, I’m like, ‘Well, you just confirmed to me that it was not a mountain lion.’”
Mountain lions in the wild, she added, “aren’t that vocal. They’ll chuff, they’ll make purring sounds when they’re around each other during breeding season, but they’re not that vocal.” Coyotes are also very vocal and loud, she added.
As far as a dog being killed in this alleged attack, that’s not only unlikely because we don’t have mountain lions here but also because it was probably a much more likely culprit.
Sometimes the commission gets reports of domestic animals being injured or killed, and the owners are convinced it was a mountain lion.
“In those cases, we always find no, it was a dog or it was a bear or it was an injury from barbed wire,” Olfenbuttel said. “To be honest, a lot of times it’s injuries from dogs.”
She mentioned a case in which mountain lions were rumored to have killed llamas.
“We investigated and it was very clear from the injuries that it was dogs that were in the area that were allowed to be loose that had done the damage,” Olfenbuttel said. “People forget that dogs, including their own dogs, are really good at attacking other animals — other wild animals as well as other domestic animals.”
Mountain lions do roam on occasion
The Mountain Lion Foundation says these states have the big cats: California, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, and Oregon.
Olfentbuttel is not completely ruling out a wild mountain lion one day roaming into North Carolina. She said they have wandered up from Florida into southern Georgia, but Florida has a relatively small population of cougars, so it’s unlikely one will venture this far.
A handful have roamed from western states pretty far east, including one male who moseyed from the Dakotas to Connecticut. Wildlife authorities got reports along the way and found hair, scat, and tracks, Olfenbuttel said.
“You know, it wouldn’t surprise me in the next 20 to 30 years if we get a mountain lion that wanders in from one of the western states,” Olfenbuttel said.
But when it comes to people thinking they have already seen mountain lions around here, in the wild, Olfenbuttel knows you cannot unconvince someone of what they are sure they’ve seen.
“They are convinced and nothing I say or do will convince them otherwise,” Olfenbuttel said.
Some folks are even convinced the state has reintroduced the breed here. Olfenbuttel says the state has reintroduced or worked to recover populations of bobcats, bears, river otters, and wild turkeys, but not mountain lions.
She’s heard some pretty wacky theories on what the state has done, including reintroducing mountain lions under pressure from one particular industry.
“I will go on record to say the Commission did not release mountain lions, nor did we release mountain lions because the car insurance (industry) wanted us to,” she said with a laugh. “That’s a myth that gets perpetuated.”
The theory there is that mountain lions would eat a lot of deer, thereby reducing the number of deer/vehicle collisions — and claims insurance companies would have to pay off.
“It’s no more ridiculous than I hear that we like to drop rattlesnakes from planes with parachutes,” she said.
That’s a real myth out there, folks, and I’ve written about it before. We know it’s untrue because, well, how would the snakes pull the ripcords?
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org