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The Big-Cat Conundrum
Not one wild cougar in Alabama has been verified since the 1960s, but sightings are ignored every month.
 
By Nick Carter
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of AON
 
This wild Florida panther was killed 3 miles from the Alabama border in Troup County, Ga. DNA evidence showed it was sired by a member of the reproducing population in the Everglades more than 650 miles away. This cat opens the door to the possibility that wild cougars could be spreading across the Southeast.
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Seven feet long, sleek, silent and lying in wait from the cover of some low-slung branch, a cougar can launch more than 20 feet horizontally from a dead standstill. Its claws, driven by the momentum of a 160-lb. frame, will slam into the haunches of its prey, digging into flesh to drag it to the ground.

The kill is quick, almost always the result of a broken neck. A cougar does not clamp down on its prey’s throat like other predators. With sharp canine teeth spaced about 2 inches apart, powerful jaws push through muscle and tendon precisely bracketing an adult whitetail’s vertebra. The spinal column is severed with a single bone-crushing bite or a series of jerky tugs.

Short of a rifle in the hands of a hunter, cougars are North America’s most efficient killers. They were once the dominant predators in our forests, with populations spanning the entire continent in direct competition with humans for the most prolific big-game animal — deer. Perhaps that is why North America’s cougar populations were nearly eradicated, pushed into small pockets in the western mountains and the south Florida swamps at the turn of the last century. Or perhaps it was out of fear.

Experts point to fear as the reason Alabama hunters have been trapped in treestands afraid to come down in the dark after seeing what they were dead certain was a cougar. Whether you call them cougars, panthers, mountain lions, pumas or any of the other names they go by, they are all the same critter, and all of the fish and game agencies in the Southeast belittle these sightings, passing them off as the overactive imaginations of fearful, or hopeful, individuals. And, when palpable evidence of cougars arises, it is typically filed away as the result of a released or escaped captive animal.

However, some recent confirmed encounters with cougars have biologists softening their stances. Whether they’ve been here, hiding in the shadows all along, or whether it is the result of nature and reproduction coupled with human protections bestowed upon these creatures, bona fide wild cougars are popping up in the Southeast, and these encounters bracket Alabama like the canines of a big cat around a deer’s spinal column.

The Border Cat

On Nov. 16, 2008, Dave Adams, of Newnan, Ga., killed a 140-lb. male cougar while deer hunting between the two northern arms of West Point Lake. The kill was less than 3 miles on Highway 109 from Alabama.

Off the bat, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources issued a statement claiming the cat was likely captive reared, presenting evidence in the form of low parasite levels and scuffed paw pads, presumably the result of time spent in a concrete holding pen. But, when DNA testing was returned, the young male turned out to be a wild Florida panther, or eastern cougar, traced back to the small reproducing population of some 100 to 120 panthers in the Florida Everglades more than 650 miles away by road.

How did it get to Troup County, Ga., and how did it cross all the roads and all the hunting leases during the heart of Georgia’s rut without someone spotting it? A Florida official said young males have been known to travel great distances when seeking to establish a new home range. And there was one dark, out-of-focus trail-camera shot of what looked to be a large cat taken Nov. 2 in Harris County, Ga., just south of where Adams shot the panther two weeks later. But that was the only other reported sighting of the cat.

Western cougars may provide insight into the behavior of these cats.

Spreading East

Mark Dowling is co-founder of the Cougar Network, a nonprofit research organization that studies cougars and their expansion into former hunting grounds across North America.

“There’s definitely a possibility that an individual cougar could walk that far,” Dowling said. “The males are the ones that typically disperse from where they were born. The females typically set up a territory near where they were born.”

He said that since protections for cougars were put into place in most states in the 1960s and 70s, the cats have been on the rebound. Spreading from Wyoming, Colorado and Montana, cougars have re-established small reproducing populations in the Dakotas, and they appear to have gained a toe-hold in western Nebraska, all states where wild cougars had been considered non-existent for decades.

Dispersing wild males have shown up as far east as Illinois and Missouri and as far south as Arkansas.

“When they’re dispersing, they don’t have a set range, but there’s been documented individual dispersals in the hundreds of miles,” Dowling said. “A couple of cats went over 600 miles. One was killed in downtown Chicago. They can go hundreds of miles.”

Over a time span of a decade, western cougars have naturally, without human help other than harvest limits, re-established populations from state to state into the Midwest. What’s to stop the established Florida population from spreading north or the large west Texas population from spreading east? Is it already happening?

Dowling said the young males from western and midwestern populations are ranging farther east, but the wild card in establishing populations is whether the breeding females will spread, as well.

He also said the Florida and Texas populations face greater obstacles to re-establishing reproducing populations. Cougars in Texas are not protected. They are officially listed as nuisance animals with no harvest limits, like coyotes or hogs in Alabama. There have been verified encounters with wild cougars in east Texas and into Louisiana, but Mark speculated the high harvest in Texas is curtailing their spread. As for the Florida cats, they have survived in such low numbers that they warrant federal protection. Although they are on a slow rebound, it has required much human intervention.

But Dowling would not dismiss the possibility of cougar populations spreading into Alabama, and he definitely does not consider dispersing males wandering through Alabama an impossibility.

“The only thing I think we can say about Alabama is that we’re very confident there’s no breeding population of mountain lions in Alabama. Because if there were, there’d be abundant evidence of it,” he said.

He said cougars are very vulnerable on the roads and noted that the small Florida population experiences up to 15 roadkills a year, while the 200 South Dakota cats average about 20 roadkills a year.

“There’s a gauntlet of detection with all these roads and all these people,” he said. “There’d be abundant evidence in the form of regular road kills, regular trial-camera photos and just other incidental forms of confirmation.”

Some of those other forms of confirmation regularly occurring in the new Midwest populations include hikers and hunters finding cougar carcasses and coon hounds treeing cougars.

Trail-camera photos of Alabama cougars? Some would say they are already out there. Could it be they are not submitted to Alabama DCNR because of the skepticism they are met with?

Worth a Thousand Words

Ashley, a Monroe County hunter who did not want his last name used because of poacher problems on his family’s 3,000 acres in Monroe County, submitted a convincing trail-camera photo to AON. He also submitted it to Alabama DCNR but never heard back from the department.

The photo was taken March 14, 2009, on a Monroe County logging road in the middle of a pine plantation. Ashley did not retrieve the photos for a month after they were taken, so he did not look for other sign, and he hasn’t captured a photo of the animal since.

He sent the photo to a good friend who is a biologist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture.

“He told me it was either a bull mastiff dog that hasn’t had its tail clipped or a cat,” Ashley said. “And we’ve never seen a big dog like that wandering the property, and a big dog like that probably wouldn’t be scared of much. That leads me to believe this is a big cat.”

Mark Sasser, coordinator of DCNR’s Non-Game Wildlife Program, said every trail-camera photo he’s ever seen that was reportedly taken in Alabama turned out to have come from another state upon investigation. AON forwarded the photo in question (see page 15) to a DCNR biologist who was looking into it at presstime. A preliminary survey of DCNR staff by the biologist turned up two votes for dog, one vote for bobcat and several who were not sure.

The Cajun Connection

To the west, in Louisiana, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) has had four verified cougar encounters since 2002, according to Maria Davidson, LDWF large carnivore program manager.

In 2002, a LDWF employee reported a sighting of a big cat at Lake Fausse Point State Park in St. Martinsville, La. Scat collected after the sighting verified the animal was indeed a cougar, and at the time it was determined to be a wild animal. However, Davidson called the determination of the cat’s origin inconclusive.

At the time, Louisiana biologists worked under the theory that if a cougar had DNA markers from a South American populations, it was a captive cougar. If it didn’t, it was likely from a wild population. This animal did not have South American DNA markers, so it was presumed to be a wild animal. Since that time, DNA testing has become more precise in determining an animal’s origin.

The most recent verified cougar encounters came in a string which culminated with a cougar shot and killed by LDWF agents in a Bossier City neighborhood in November 2008. Davidson said she could not be certain, but she suspects the three trail-cam photos taken in September 2008 are of the same cat. Those photos were taken within the travel range of a cougar, and no photos taken after the cat was killed have surfaced.

The Bossier City cougar was once captive according to the DNA markers, which showed lineage from populations scattered across the continent and South America. Davidson said she has no idea where the healthy, 4-year-old cat came from.

Jailbreak!

The Bossier City Cougar is just one of many cougar encounters in the Southeast that have been attributed to escaped or released captives. Dowling said they pop up from time to time.

“There are literally thousands of these cats in private hands, and a lot of them have irresponsible owners,” Dowling said. “They do get loose at times. Some of them have gotten loose and have even been able to live in the wild for months, even when they are declawed.”

Davidson took it another step, saying a captive-reared cougar would not have any problem surviving in the wild. Evidence from a cougar study conducted in Florida’s Okefenokee swamp in the mid 1990s suggests once-captive cougars will not only survive, they will spread and breed.

Florida researchers radio collared and released 19 western cougars in a study to determine whether Florida panthers could be restocked in new areas. All of the released cougars were eventually recovered, either recaptured or killed in a mishap, but one male made it as far north as Burke County, Ga., about 300 miles from where it was released.

There was a big surprise in the study, though. Even though all the males were vasectomized to prevent reproduction, one of the procedures apparently didn’t take. Two of the females had kittens, which were recovered, and two other females were observed exhibiting the behaviors of mother cougars, even though their kittens were never spotted.

In following years, two cougars were killed in Georgia that turned out to be offspring of cats in the study. A Florida biologist announced he was “99.9 percent certain we got them all.” Wild cougars typically have two kittens per litter.

Captive cougar encounters pop up in Alabama, as well.

“We had a skull that was turned in to a biologist down in Crenshaw County eight or 10 years ago that was definitely a cougar skull,” Sasser said. “But upon an investigation and looking at it closely, all the front teeth were shattered, which tells me this cougar was captive and chewing on a cage, and somebody probably dumped it out in the woods somewhere.”

Believe It When You See It

Captive or wild, real or imaginary, cougar sightings have been happening in Alabama since history has been recorded. According to a 1999 article in Alabama Wildlife Magazine, written by M. Keith Causey, an Auburn wildlife professor, and Mark Bailey, then director of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, the only confirmed encounters in modern times were a Tuscaloosa County cougar shot in 1956, a confirmed cougar track found on Fred T. Stimpson Wildlife Sanctuary in Clarke County in 1961 and a north Baldwin County den with kittens that was found by a game warden during the same era.

Sasser said he probably gets two calls a month reporting cougar sightings, but admitted DCNR does not bother checking out reported sightings.

“Most of the time somebody says they saw it cross the road in the dark. There’s never been anything that was substantial evidence for us to go out,” he said. “Nobody’s had any tracks; nobody’s had any scat or anything like that to go check. If somebody says they saw a cougar a day or so ago, it ain’t going to do no good to go out there and look, because most of them aren’t seeing cougars anyway.

“To tell folks there’s no cougars in Alabama is like telling them there ain’t no Santa Claus. Folks just won’t believe us.”

When asked about the distribution of these sightings, Sasser said, “We don’t keep up with it. They come from all over the state. If we were putting pins in a map, which we aren’t, it’d be from north to south to east to west.

“If someone had some livestock that was getting killed on a regular basis or something like that, obviously we’d send somebody out to investigate. But we haven’t had anything to investigate.”

Rob Banton, a Huntsville real-estate appraiser, doesn’t need an investigation to tell him what he saw was real. On an afternoon a few years ago he was hunting outside of Roba near the border of Bullock and Macon counties. He was sitting over a green field about 75 yards long and 300 yards wide and bounded by planted pines.

“It was the dangdest thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “You don’t expect to see something like that. He walked right across the field. He wasn’t stalking anything, but he was going somewhere. He just walked across it in broad daylight. He had a big old long tail, looked as big around as a baseball bat.”

Rob watched the cat walk across the field about 100 yards from his stand for about two minutes through his 10x scope. He said it was tan and probably weighed about 100 pounds.

“It was a big cat. It was not a bobcat. I’ve been hunting all my life. I’ve seen bobcats. I know all the creatures in the woods. It was without a doubt a cougar, catamount, panther, whatever you want to call it.”

Rob said he thought about shooting the cat, but didn’t because he doesn’t kill animals he doesn’t plan to eat.

“I just regret that I didn’t have a camera,” he said “I’ll always regret not having a camera with me.”

Stories like Rob’s are a dime a dozen. Many Alabama hunters see cougars, and even more people have seen them on the road while driving. But sharing a story like Rob’s at the coffee counter will most often subject the teller to ridicule, and it’s almost certain officials will not bother attempting to verify a sighting.

But there’s something else people are spotting in Alabama, the stories of which are likely to be met with as much derision as a sasquatch sighting. These are tales of the black panther.

Black Panthers

Ned Ling, of Helena, is used to hearing rebuttals when he tells of his 1998 black panther sighting in north Dallas County. After all, there is no such thing as a black panther. It’s a fact; cougars don’t come in that color.

There are, however, two big-cat species known to produce black or almost black individuals. They are the South American jaguarundi and the African Leopard. And there is reason to believe there might be a few jaguarundi on the prowl in south Alabama. More on that later.

It was bow season. Ned was 20 feet up a pine, and it had just gotten light enough to see the forest floor.

“I heard something walking down the trail. I looked down, and I saw something black. Now, my father-in-law has a black lab, so I’m thinking it’s this dog. As it gets closer, I was like that’s not Jake... the dog.”

The animal walked directly under Ned’s stand, and at that point he realized it was a big cat.

“No doubt in my mind,” he said. “It was about the size, maybe a little bit smaller than a full-grown lab — jet black, long tail, whiskers, the whole deal. It was a large black cat.”

He estimated the cat to weigh between 60 and 70 pounds, and he lined up to shoot it. But aiming straight down, he couldn’t get the arrow to stay on the rest. Then he started to consider what it would be like to have this cat wounded and in the tree with him. Ned opted to settle in and watch. The cat stood on its hind legs and stretched out on a sapling before it eased off down the trail after a couple of minutes.

Ned’s story can be added to several credible reports from south Alabama. According to a 2003 article also by Bailey, which was published by the Alabama Wildlife Federation, a jaguarundi was captured in Jefferson County almost 40 years ago.

The jaguarundi, or jaguar, can come in color phases ranging from black to dark gray to red. They can reach 4 feet in length, and they measure about a foot at the shoulder.

Bailey wrote of a Florida population of these cats that may have gone feral after being released into the wild in the 1940s. He wrote of a Birmingham Southern biology professor who spotted these creatures in both Mobile and Baldwin counties in the 1980s, and two other reports he called credible in northern Mobile County in the late 1990s. Finally he told his own tale of two possible jaguarundi he saw on the road in Baldwin County in 1988.

So, there definitely aren’t any black panthers, but there might be black jaguarundi in Alabama.

Conclusion

There is no conclusion. Officials hold, as they always have, that there is no population of cougars in Alabama. However, since the Florida panther showed up in Georgia, most have acknowledged the possibility of a dispersing male in the state on walkabout.

“That’s not to say that one day one might not pass through and be seen in the future,” said Sasser. “It could happen, but the odds of someone seeing it if we just have one passing through would be pretty low.”

Of course dispersing animals are exactly how new populations are formed, and once-captive cougars can breed as well as wild ones.

The cougar reports keep coming in from all over the state. The problem is, there is no effort to verify or debunk these reports. There have been no officially confirmed encounters with wild cougars in Alabama since the 1960s. But how can encounters be officially confirmed if officials aren’t willing to go into the field to confirm them?

If you have a big-cat sighting to report, e-mail it to <carter@aonmag.com>. Include your name, hometown, where you saw the cat and your contact information.

WANTED
$1,000 reward offered for best evidence of an Alabama cougar.

AON is ponying up $1,000 to find physical evidence of Alabama cougars in the wild. With a deadline of April 1, 2011, we are asking readers to submit the best physical evidence they can gather of cougars. Evidence must be from Alabama, and submissions must include full name and contact information. Evidence will be subjected to an investigation to determine validity. AON will only accept original evidence (newspaper clippings or evidence collected by a third party will not be accepted). Cash prizes ($500, $300 and $200) will be awarded for the top-three submissions. AON reserves the right to publish any evidence submitted, as well as the right to disqualify any submission for any reason. To submit evidence, send e-mails to <carter@aonmag.com>, or mail submissions to Alabama Cougar Contest, 1414 Golden Springs Rd., Suite 313, Anniston, AL 36207-6924. Call (800) 438-4663 with questions.
 
 
 
 
 
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