- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007

ROANOKE — Scores of hunters and hikers claim to have seen them in recent decades, but scientists say it still hasn’t been proven that mountain lions continue to roam Virginia’s wilderness.

Not since 1882 has there been a confirmed sighting of a puma concolor. But since 1970, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has received 121 reports of sightings, including many in western Virginia.

Now there’s a small chance that dozens of motion-sensitive infrared cameras — all placed near the Appalachian Trial — will settle the issue.

Starting next month, researchers and volunteers will begin installing 50 cameras at 350 sites in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. The cameras will be mounted to trees along with scented lures, placed roughly a half-mile apart and moved monthly to new locations.

The cameras won’t be placed along the trail itself to avoid being triggered by passing hikers. Researchers expect to find images of weasels, black bears and other meat-eaters. The data will be uploaded about once a month to a National Park Service Web site.

Wildlife studies have been conducted along the trail in the past, and all national parks have done predator surveys by documenting tracks, feces, hair tufts, DNA samples and other evidence. But using motion-sensitive cameras near the trial to create a regional inventory of predators is a first.

Counting predators is one way of determining the health of ecosystems on the East Coast, and gauging the effects of sprawl, air pollution and water pollution.

“Predators need space, so they should be sensitive to what’s going on around them,” said Bill McShea, a Smithsonian Institution wildlife ecologist who will lead the study. “Spotted skunks, for example, were everywhere 15 years ago, but we don’t know why they seem to be decreasing.”

The first year’s data could show how some species are faring by comparing numbers in different locations — such as heavily populated Northern Virginia and rural parts of western Virginia.

“Maybe we’ll find the mythical, mysterious mountain lion,” Mr. McShea said. “You never know.”

The mountain lion’s territory once extended across North America, but the species was eliminated from most of the Eastern United States by the early 1900s because of hunters and declining numbers of deer, their preferred food.

Today, mountain lions — also known as cougars — are thriving in many parts of the West and are being reported in growing pockets in the Midwest and East, according to the Cougar Network, a nonprofit research organization.

The all-volunteer survey is a cooperative effort between the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Smithsonian Institution.

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