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West Virginia Really Is ‘Wild And Wonderful’

FILE - In this Wednesday Aug. 1, 2007 file photo, a black bear walks across the ground in Lyme, N.H. A Maine legislative committee decided in late May 2019 that proposals to overhaul the state's bear hunting rules will have to wait until the next legislative session in January. The bear population of Maine has grown from about 23,000 in 2004 to more than 35,000 in 2019, the largest bear population on the East Coast. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter, File)

WHEELING — If crisp September mornings spark a sudden urge to roam the local hillsides — whether hunting or hiking — keep in mind there’s more to the state’s “wild, wonderful” slogan than white-tailed deer.

“The Northern Panhandle is much more developed than it was back then (frontier days), but, definitely, the namesake is fitting,” said Steve Rauch, district wildlife biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources.

There are black bears in the woods — more often than not, at least this far north, just a single young male looking for a territory of his own, Rauch said. There’s also the occasional bobcat or a flash of orangey-red that suggests the presence of a fox. Not to mention a slew of wee things — weasels and woodland jumping mice, opossums and muskrats.

One thing those who wander area woods likely won’t see, however, is a mountain lion, Rauch said.

Eastern mountain lions once native to the state are extinct. And, while their western counterparts are heading vaguely this direction, there is no verifiable evidence they are in West Virginia. Not one has been spotted on any of the state’s multitude of trail cameras, treed by hounds or hit by a car, for example, he said.

Not that wildlife enthusiasts wouldn’t like for there to be some, he noted. “Routinely, people will call in and say, ‘I’ve seen a mountain lion,'” Rauch said.

Often, he explained, what they’ve actually seen is a feral cat or the much smaller native bobcat, a short-tailed species that weighs in at 25 pounds or so compared to the 150-plus-pound potential heft of a male mountain lion.

Other times, there’s a hoax involved in such reports. Photos of mountain lions sent to West Virginia DNR, for example, generally involve a location other than the Mountain State, he said. “I have not seen a picture that was claimed to be in West Virginia yet, that I did not see that same picture (taken elsewhere) on the internet.”

That said, there is always the possibility of a single western mountain lion (or cougar) with an exceptional desire to roam, Rauch noted. Such things have happened. One western cat linked by DNA to a wild population in South Dakota traveled more than 1,500 miles before being struck down on a Connecticut highway in 2011, according to news reports.

Or, perhaps more likely, someone could deliberately (and illegally) release such an animal into the wild here.

Even considering such lone-cat possibilities, Rauch noted that mountain lions are unlikely to make a significant comeback anywhere in the Eastern region of the U.S. The human population is simply too high, he said.

WHAT’S OUT THERE

If mountain lions aren’t out there in the wild woodlands of West Virginia, what is? Rauch said one place to begin answering that question is with another question — What was there?

When West Virginia was new to humans, there were plenty of large mammals roaming the woods in addition to myriad smaller species. This included mild-mannered animals such as eastern elk and woodland bison in addition to the white-tailed deer that remain abundant to the point many current residents have probably spotted one in their front yard, he said.

The elk went extinct, Rauch said, because of habitat loss and market-level hunting for meat. Woodland bison were pushed by human settlement into wilder areas. These animals, slightly smaller than the wild bison that once roamed the Great Plains, remain in Canada.

And, to a certain extent, he noted, in the Mountain State’s memory. Rauch said there’s a former bison grazing area near Grafton that is still called Buffalo Flat. “Some of the roads in West Virginia are where bison trails were in the past,” he added.

The elk story took a different turn a handful of years ago when the state reintroduced a sub-species, the Rocky Mountain elk, into low-human-population areas south of Charleston, Rauch said.

Those elk are mostly regarded as photo opportunities at the moment, but Rauch said the herd may one day be large enough to allow hunting. The state has also successfully reintroduced river otters, beavers and fishers. (Check out wvdnr.gov for updates on these animals and others.)

One non-native mammal, the European boar, was also introduced by the state to heavily mined areas in southwest West Virginia. That reluctant-to-roam species is now established to the point the boars are hunted.

ON THE PROWL

West Virginia’s early days also saw a handful of large predators — some of which remain.

The eastern mountain lion and eastern timber wolf are long gone, but Rauch said coyotes and what has pretty much always been a small population of black bears are here. (Grizzlies never lived this far east).

In Marshall County and parts south, there are confirmed sightings of sows (female bears) and cubs, Rauch said. From Ohio County to the north, most confirmed sightings have been of male bears.

Rauch explained that male black bears leave their mothers at age 2 to search for territories of their own. Given that a single male needs 20 to 30 square miles to be comfortable, developed areas such as those around Wheeling aren’t ideal.

“It’s typically just a solo male coming through,” he said, noting the DNR doesn’t want a bear to set up shop near a city, where interaction and conflict with humans is inevitable. For that reason, bear hunting season is longer in the Northern Panhandle than in other parts of the state, he said.

While the lure of large mammals is understandable, Rauch noted that hunters and hikers should keep their distance, particularly in the case of bears.

“There’s a saying, ‘a fed bear is a dead bear,'” Rauch said. “It’s true. Once people feed them, they get habituated to us and they can be a huge nuisance. Keep ’em wild.”

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