Not according to those same wildlife officials. They say the eastern cougar — mountain lion — disappeared from both states 80 or more years ago and have never returned.
Jim Hackworth of the McDermott area disagrees with that assessment.
“I’ve seen three of them,” he said.
“Mountain lions here? We have no photo, no roadkill, no documentation of any kind to show that they’re here, or have moved into Ohio from neighboring states, which don’t have them either,” said Jim Hill, wildlife management supervisor for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife District IV headquarters in Athens.
“There’s always the possibility that someone’s pet got loose. About 10 years ago, in Belmont County, there was a cougar shot, but it had been de-clawed and its incisors ground off.”
Granted, Hackworth hasn’t seen any in three years now. But he’s seen their tracks.
“I’ve got probably 30 witnesses to their tracks,” he said.
“I’ve seen their tracks right here behind my house, in the dust and in the snow at dusk,” said Hackworth, who will turn 70 in August. “Their pad measured 3.5 inches by 4 inches, and their stride 27 inches. That’s the same stride as a horse.”
“Sightings of large cats have been reported in Kentucky and many other eastern states for decades. However, there is no evidence that Kentucky or Ohio is home to a population of mountain lions,” said Steven Dobey, a wildlife biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “If there were a breeding population (of the big cats) here we would have to see some evidence to support it, such as road kills.”
Dobey said what people are seeing and thinking they are seeing cougars can be bobcats, domestic cats, river otter, black bears or even coyotes, which are plentiful.
Such talk doesn’t distract Hackworth. He said he knows what he saw, especially in later years, and has no doubts he saw a cougar.
“I’ve hunted mountain lions out west, and I’m well acquainted with what one looks like,“ he said.
“The first one I saw was right here on this piece of ground (where he lives now, off Arion Road, which connects Ohio 73 and Ohio 348), back in the ‘50s,” Hackworth said. “I was a junior or senior in high school. I was cutting firewood, and had stopped to sharpen the chain. I heard the leaves rustling up the hill above me. I looked and saw that big brownish, yellow body.
“Dad kept hunting dogs. They had treed bobcats before. I went to the house, untied three of them, and put them on that big cat’s trail. Two of them never came back. The one that did was all tore up with its tail between its legs. I thought my dad was going to skin me for that.”
Ten years ago, he and a friend were building a fence. It was cold and they had built a fire.
“I looked up the hill and saw the big cat sitting on its haunches, watching. Then it sprung off into the woods,” Hackworth said.
The third one he saw was near a pond behind a neighbor’s doublewide.
“We were cutting firewood. The chainsaw wasn’t running right, and I told my buddy, ‘let‘s go up to Leroy’s and get that sharpened.’ That’s when we saw it. The neighbor got a plaster of of Paris cast of tracks around that pond, and there’s no doubt in my mind but that they were the prints of a big cat.”
Physical drawbacks these days keep Hackworth from roaming the hills as he’d like to
More often now he’s installing motion cameras in likely places in the woods to hopefully capture an image of a big southern Ohio cougar.
“That’s what we’ve got to have to make those wildlife people stand up and take notice,” he said.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236, or firstname.lastname@example.org.