First there were bears and then bobcats, but now mountain lions?
It may seem so as an off-duty officer with the Ohio Division of Wildlife has reported to agency officials that he observed what may be a mountain lion July 29 in the Wintersville area of Jefferson County.
This location is near the 3,032-acre Fernwood State Forest.
The closest large community in the region is Steubenville, located along the Ohio River.
Fernwood State Forest contains the remnants of coal extraction and is considered remote and rugged with many small lakes and ponds and consists of mature mixed hardwoods.
Wildlife Division officials and local police are in the area, scouting for any sign of the would-be mountain lion, also commonly called a cougar or panther.
Agency officials further say that it's District Three (Northeast Ohio) Office in Akron will field reports of any similar potential sightings. Those sightings can be called in the District office at 330-644-2293.
Likewise the agency sent safety tips to area schools and such for distribution to athletic and cross-country teams, the material noting how to avoid conflicts.
While little is known as to whether this sighting is genuine or not the Wildlife Division also is reviewing its records of people licensed to own such animals.
Oho recently stiffened its laws regulating exotic wild animals including the requirement of site inspection of any facility and additional permitting protocols.
And even though periodic and scattered reports of mountain lions in Ohio have cropped up in virtually all instances the to-date consensus has been either the creature in question was misidentified or else was deliberately released or an escaped animal.
State biologists do say that if the sighting was genuine and the animal was a wild mountain lion then in all likelihood it was young male. That is because young male lions and young male black bears both share a trait that once sent on their way by its mother the animal is looking for new territory to set up a home range.
Yet if the lion did exist and was seen that does not mean it is still in Jefferson County. Mountain lions have extensive home ranges and can move as far as 20 miles per day, said Jamey Emmert, public information specialist for the agency's District Three office.
Ohio is within the species' original per-European settlement range, says the national non-profit Cougar Fund.
The Cougar Fund says no known population of cougars exist in the state, having been extirpated long ago.
“The closest known breeding east-to-west population of mountain lions is northwest Nebraska, and north-to-south breeding population is the Florida panther,” said Penny Maldonado, the Cougar Fund's managing director.
That being said, Maldonado also noted that the Wildlife Division is spot on by saying how young male mountain lions occasionally wander far from their natal homes.
“It's called dispersal,” she said.
As far as a mountain lion posing a high risk to humans, such is rarely the case, says Maldonado.
“There have been just 20 known human fatalities by mountain lions over the past 120 years,” Maldonado says. “That's not to diminish the tragedy in each of these cases but many more children are killed from falls out of shopping carts than by mountain lion attacks.
"The greatest threat to us and to the cats is our own fear.”
For further information about the Cougar Fund, contact Maldonado at email@example.com.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Jeff is the retired News-Herald reporter who covered the earth sciences, the area's three county park systems and the outdoors for the newspaper. During his 30 years with The News-Herald Jeff was the recipient of more than 100 state, regional and national journalism awards. He also is a columnist and features writer for the Ohio Outdoor News, which is published every other week and details the outdoors happenings in the state.