Where the wild things really are

My wife and I live on 30 acres of Kentucky "holler." We face the Daniel Boone National Forest to the north and abut it to the south. There's little human traffic in the vast woods that surround us, and nobody - not even wildlife officials - seems to know exactly what lives in there. When, in the early morning of one sleepless winter night, I heard a wolf howl, I wasn't surprised, even though there aren't supposed to be wolves here.

Twenty-five years ago, my folks lived where I do now. I recall camping once on the other side of the ridge and hearing the manic yip of coyotes while lying in my tent. I told my father about it and he was sure I'd mistaken coyotes for something else. He was equally sure there weren't any coyotes in Rowan County. So were lots of other folks.

Now coyotes are so common, packs are sometimes spotted in broad daylight. A pack comes near my farm every six weeks or so, and their eerie singing echoes from the ridge across US Highway 60.

About 20 years ago, people living in the rural parts of Rowan County began reporting black bear sightings. Naturalists patiently explained to us that our habitat was not suitable for black bears. They didn't say anything about West Virginia or Tennessee, neither of which is far off and both of which have so many bears there's a hunting season to control the population.

Then one morning an older lady east of town thought she saw three big dogs in her yard, and took a broom outside to run them off. An article in the local paper said she managed to swat one before realizing she was perilously close to living the old story of "feeling mean enough to take on a bear with a switch."

Safely barricaded back inside her house, the woman called her son, who called the state police. They contacted a photographer whose pictures proved the bear rumors were true. Later a government study found that black bears had discovered that the abandoned clay mines near the lady's house made ideal dens.

These days, no one's particularly surprised when the occasional black bear meanders out of the woods to roam the golf course. Not long ago, a sow bear, determined to den under an apartment complex in the next town over, didn't give up until she was tranquilized and relocated. An uncle tells me farmers on Trent Ridge are looking for bear-proof containers to hold their cattle and horse feed.

Years ago, I knew a man named Dewey Orcutt whose tale about seeing a mountain lion in 1960, while hunting for ginseng where I-64 crosses Big Perry today, was generally met with smiles and disbelief.

Over the years, various "experts" insisted Dewey's sighting and others were fables or honest errors. But as long as Dewey lived, he stuck to his story - and he didn't care who laughed.

Then in 1993, a mountain lion walked from the woods near Tilden Hogge School, settled into a patch of warm sunshine, and went to sleep for about an hour. (I've saved the newspaper clipping.)

Now I hear about a new lion sighting about every month or so. And the experts who, not long ago, claimed lions were imaginary, are talking about this county's fine lion habitat.

When the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently started relocating elk in Harlan County, more than 100 miles south of us, they said it would take a quarter century for them to reach our section of the state. But the DNR now says that calves have been born locally. Not long ago, a reliable source saw a bull elk and two cows cross Highway 60, just east of my place.

It ain't just retirees from factories up north who are coming back to the hills they once roamed. Our forest is now home to animals that haven't lived here since our great-grandparents walked these ridges - and I'm glad.

When my wife and I hiked to the high ridge behind our house and saw a bear moving ahead of us, we weren't frightened; we were pleased.

But we might move if the buffalo try to make a comeback.

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