WV Book Team: Skip Johnson stalks W.Va.’s big cats
“West Virginia Mountain Lions: Past, Present, and Future of the Long Tailed Cat.” By Skip Johnson, with an afterword by Edwin Daryl Michael Ph.D. West Virginia Book Co. 200 pages. $15.95. Paperback.
Outdoors writer and author Skip Johnson passed away back in 2010, but many people reading this will recognize his name as the author for over 30 years of the popular Woods and Waters column for The Charleston Gazette.
Mountain lions inhabited all of what is now West Virginia when the first settlers arrived.
In approximately 120 years they were mostly gone, the victims of a “shoot on sight” mentality.
They occupy a significant spot in the history and lore of West Virginia.
Their legacy remains in the names of countless creeks, mountains, ridges, churches and schools. Johnson counted 28 high schools alone around the state whose mascots are named after big cats.
The long-tailed cat has over 60 names, making it one of the most-named animals in the world.
A puma, a mountain lion, a cougar and a panther are all the same animal. In these regions in the 1800s, it was more commonly called a painter or a catamount, or “cat of the mountain.”
The big cats are officially known as Puma concolor, and are referred to as pumas by most scientists these days. But they are known as mountain lions everywhere.
Mountain lions are more elusive than all other large mammals in North America.
It is not surprising therefore that in West Virginia, at least, their history is also sketchy.
Exactly when they disappeared, or indeed if they ever did disappear, cannot be pinned to everybody’s satisfaction.
The last “official” mountain lion in West Virginia was killed in 1877 on Tea Creek in Pocahontas County.
But numerous sightings and witness accounts of this majestic cat have been documented for decades.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources is firm on its stance that there are no native mountain lions in the state, but the number of sightings seem to tell a different story.
Where are these cats? Where did they come from? How did they get here? Why are they so reclusive?
Johnson tries to answer these questions in this well-thought-out book.
While there is no doubt that people have seen cougars in West Virginia in the past, the DNR position is that even if cats have been seen, they are not native.
People will from time to time obtain a youngster from out west and want to keep it as a pet, since they are so cute. It is only when they start to grow and get dangerous that people realize they are not house pets and release them into the wild.
There have been so many reports, in fact, that the question has become not whether mountain lions are being seen, but where they are coming from.
Deer are the main source of food for mountain lions. The puma also needs large tracts of wilderness to constantly roam and survive.
Both of these criteria are easily met in West Virginia, so if they have not yet returned naturally, many people think the cats one day will make their way back to the state.
Johnson’s nephew, Rob Johnson, says, “While Skip Johnson was an avid outdoorsman, the very one thing that captivated his interest above most was the mountain lion. In his own words, Skip said that he ‘was fascinated by all things cat.’ Whether or not they are in our beautiful state by chance or not did not matter to him.
“Skip felt that the mere thought of their presence made it a better place. The vast majority of Skip’s work on this book was while he was in declining health. At one point he was physically unable to work on the book, and it looked like it would not be finished.
“However, in late 2010, Skip felt good enough to finish what he had started. It was a defining moment for him, and I feel that while it was a tremendous undertaking for him at that point in time, he was very gratified to know that he had finished what he had planned to do.”
The following is taken from the introduction, and is a good sample of Skip Johnson’s gentle humor: “I’ve had many cats over the years, all of them Felis catus, or domestic variety, that have condescended to live at my home. Through these associations, I have come to like and admire cats, and I think I know in small ways, therefore, what they would be like if they were fifteen times bigger.”
If mountain lions have, or were to eventually take up residence in West Virginia or other Eastern states, the most important question would be whether people would tolerate them.
It has been proven in the Western states with established mountain lion populations that the long-tailed cat will tolerate people, but there is much more remote habitat in the West.
Reintroducing mountain lions in the East has been talked about, and may eventually happen. Until then, romantics among us can dream that the scream of a panther on a dark night will echo once again across our rolling hills and hollows.
“West Virginia Mountain Lions” is available locally at Taylor Books, the West Virginia Marketplace at the Capitol Market, Drug Emporium and from the West Virginia Book Co. for $15.95 plus $4.50 shipping (West Virginia residents add $0.96 sales tax). Orders can be placed at 304-342-1848 or online at www.wvbookco.com.
Bill Clements is the owner and operator of the West Virginia Book Co.