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Cougars On The Move
Will big cats ever re-establish in Southern states?
By John N. Felsher
Originally published in the June 2018 issue of AON
This game-camera photo of a cougar was provided by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and provide proof that cougars will cross the Mississippi River in search of territory. This cat was photographed in Humphreys County.
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Legendary blood-curdling screams in the night punctuated the wilderness long ago. Early settlers knew that the night screeches came not from marauding mythical beasts but real toothy creatures that could easily kill them. Pioneers had good reasons to fear the powerful predators prowling the forests just outside their cabins or lurking in the shadows beyond their feeble campfires illuminating tiny points in the endless foreboding wilds.

Cougars, also known as mountain lions, pumas, catamounts, panthers and many other names, can weigh more than 200 pounds and easily take down deer, elk, cattle—even humans. Because early settlers feared these mighty killers so much, they tried to exterminate cougars and other threats to themselves and their livestock since the earliest colonial days.

They did an excellent job accomplishing that goal, particularly in eastern North America. After centuries of indiscriminate shooting, bounties and expanding human populations turning forests into pastures, croplands and cities, big cats largely disappeared from eastern North America by the early 20th century.


Different Cougars?

Cougars once roamed the Western Hemisphere, including most of eastern North America and all Southern states. Mountain lions once ranged from northern British Columbia to southern Chile and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Today, cougar breeding populations extend from Canada to northern Mexico and as far eastward as Wyoming, Colorado and central Texas. Pockets also exist in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.

Some biologists claim 30 cougar subspecies occupied various parts of the Western Hemisphere, including eastern cougars and Florida panthers. With little evidence that cougars remained in eastern states for decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2011 that it would declare the eastern subspecies extinct and officially did so on Jan. 22, 2018.

Florida panthers were once hunted throughout the Sunshine State and adjacent states. A remnant population survives in extreme southern Florida, currently occupying about 5 percent of its original range. In the 1970s, the Florida panther population plunged to about 20 individuals, but not everyone believes the subspecies theory.

“In my professional opinion, North American mountain lions are all the same species,” opined Dr. Michelle LaRue, executive director of the Cougar Network and a wildlife ecologist. “I believe that the animals that were in eastern North America at one time are the same species currently in western North America. I don’t think the eastern cougar or the Florida panther is a different subspecies from the western cougar.”

Because of interbreeding, the isolated Florida population suffered genetic problems. In 1995, wildlife biologists brought in eight female mountain lions from Texas to breed with the Florida cats and add fresh genes. The plan worked. The Florida population has grown to an estimated 150 to 230 individuals today.

“Female cougars brought in from Texas genetically rescued the Florida panther population,” LaRue affirmed. “The population had been isolated for a really long time but is doing well now.”


So Many Sightings, So Little Evidence

Although cougars officially disappeared from most eastern states nearly a century ago, hunters, hikers, campers, motorists, farmers and others reported big cat sightings for decades where no such animals should exist. Reports increased in recent years. Did a remnant eastern population survive, or are animals from western states migrating eastward to recolonize old territory? Is an expanding Florida population forcing animals to move northward and reclaim their native range?

“There’s very little evidence to suggest that mountain lions have existed in eastern North America outside of Florida for most of the past century,” LaRue detailed. “There has certainly been a trend of cougars moving eastward since the 1990s. We are seeing an increase in the number of confirmed cougar occurrences, particularly in the middle sections of the United States and Canada. We don’t have enough information to say that’s a trend or not, but some animals are being seen east of their current range.”

Sighting stories make interesting conversation, but can’t prove anything. The person may have seen an actual cougar or perhaps misidentified a bobcat, coyote or other animal. To document the presence of a big cat in an area, biologists need physical evidence such as a track, scat, clear photograph or a body. In the past two decades, however, biologists have obtained more undeniable evidence in several Midwestern and Southern states.

“We’ve been seeing increasing confirmations every year since the 1990s,” LaRue said. “I would guess that animals are coming from several areas in the West, but the only way we can be certain of that is through genetic analysis. Close to half of our confirmations are photos. Photos are great, but we can’t tell any other information about the animal or where it originated.”


Taking A Walkabout

A big male cougar needs more than 100,000 acres for its home range. A female might stay in about half of that. When a young cougar reaches about 18 months old, the mother chases it off so she can breed again. Young males don’t want to stay around larger, more dominant males and sometimes wander long distances looking to establish their own territory and to find a mate.

“The prevailing knowledge is that mountain lion populations currently out West are doing well enough where the subadults have to disperse from their locations because the territorial males kick them out,” LaRue explained. “At this time, there are patches of habitat to the east, but it’s not like mountain lions know there is available habitat in the East. They just move away from where they were born to look for territory of their own where they can hunt prey and find a mate for breeding.”

When a young animal can’t find a mate, it might walk across half a continent looking for one. In 2000, a train killed a lion in southern Illinois. A bowhunter killed one in Mercer County, Illinois along the Mississippi River in 2004. In 2008, police shot and killed a 150-lb. cougar in Chicago. Prior to these events, the last cougar confirmation in Illinois occurred in 1864.

In June 2011, a 140-lb. male cougar wandered about 1,500 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota before a car hit and killed it near Greenwich, Conn. Ironically, this cat died in one of the easternmost states just three months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proclaimed its intention to declare cougars extinct in the east. The Chicago cat also came from South Dakota.


Indisputable Evidence

On Nov. 30, 2008, Louisiana confirmed the first indisputable evidence of a cougar in the state for more than 40 years when a 125-lb. male wandered into Bossier City in the northwestern corner of the state. Concerned for the safety of people living in the neighborhood, police shot and killed the animal, the first cougar carcass recovered in Louisiana since 1965. The DNA from that cat established that it originated in New Mexico more than 500 miles away.

Earlier that year, trail cameras caught images of cougars in Winn Parish in north-central Louisiana and Vernon and Allen parishes in western Louisiana. State officials could not confirm if the cat killed in Bossier City was the same animal in the photos or not. More evidence turned on up trail cameras in subsequent years. In August 2011, a camera snapped another cougar photo in Vernon Parish. In November 2016, a camera shot an image of a cougar in Morehouse Parish in the extreme northeastern corner of the state. 

“Cats are most likely coming from the West in a dispersal movement,” reasoned Maria Davidson, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries large carnivore program manager. “We don’t sense any eastward migration or trends. I think cougars just move through an area and occasionally get caught on camera. It would not be unusual for a cougar to wander through the state every few years, but I doubt we have any permanent resident big cats in Louisiana. Even in areas with very small cougar populations, we see evidence of their presence from road-kills or photos. We just don’t see much evidence in Louisiana or other southeastern states. People frequently send photos to our department claiming an animal is a cougar. Very, very rarely, it’s an actual cougar.”

Cougars could easily reach Louisiana from breeding populations in Texas, but what about states east of the Mississippi River? The great stream creates a formidable barrier for cougars moving eastward. However, the Connecticut and Chicago cats found a way to cross or go around it. Other cats could do the same.


The Tennessee Cats

In November 2014, people found a cougar carcass in Bourbon County, Ky. Ten months later, trail cameras captured a cougar image in Obion County in northwestern Tennessee near Reelfoot Lake, the first confirmation of a cougar in the Volunteer State since the early 1900s. Six days later and about 35 miles away in Carroll County, a bowhunter shot a female cougar. DNA evidence obtained from the arrow revealed that the wounded lion also came from the Black Hills of South Dakota.

“Cougars coming into Tennessee from out west would have to cross the Mississippi River,” said Joy Sweaney, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologist. “That would be difficult for them, but not impossible. The cougar shot with the arrow was never found.”

Several more Tennessee sightings followed in the next year. In September 2016, a trail camera got a photo of a cougar in Wayne County, which borders Alabama north of Florence.

“It’s possible all these sightings came from one cat, but it could have been two,” Sweaney revealed. “The one hit with the arrow was a female. The one caught on the game camera may have been a male, but we couldn’t confirm that. None of the photos from 2016 showed any wounds on the cat. Males are more transient. Females are more likely to stay close to home. Big cats could possibly wander through the state, but actually seeing a cougar in Tennessee is extremely rare.”

LaRue said, “For cougars to disperse from where they were born and actually make it to suitable habitat in eastern states is very difficult. Except for Florida, the closest confirmed breeding populations to the eastern states is Texas or Nebraska. The primary factor impeding mountain lions repopulating eastern states is people. There is habitat and prey to sustain them in places, but will people accept them in those areas?”


Alabama Cats?

There was another cougar that showed up on the Alabama border. In November 2008, a healthy 140-lb. fully clawed male cougar was shot on the Georgia side of West Point Lake, which straddles the Georgia-Alabama line near LaGrange, Ga. Instead of moving east, this one ventured north.

“Cougars are native to Georgia,” explained Charlie Killmaster, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist. “We’ve heard reports of them for many years, but in my 13 years here the only one with actual evidence was the 2008 cat. We did genetic work on that cat and determined it was a genuine wild cougar that came from Florida. Both of its parents had been captured and collared in Florida. It was about four years old and traveled about 650 miles as the crow flies. Before that, the last confirmed cougar in Georgia was a Florida panther killed in the southern Okefenokee Swamp in 1925.”

Although cougars appeared near Alabama, no one could produce evidence of a large cat inside the Cotton State for decades. The last confirmed cougar shot in Alabama happened in St. Clair County in 1948.

In 1961, a cougar track was confirmed in Clarke County. In the late 1960s, another track was found in the same general area. Also in the late 1960s, an Alabama conservation enforcement officer found a cougar den with cubs in northern Baldwin County. Since then, not a single irrefutable photo, hair sample, track or carcass could confirm the presence of big cats in the state.

“Cougars are the only big cat species to historically call Alabama home,” clarified Thomas E. Harms, the large carnivore biologist for the Alabama DCNR. “Their historic range covered the whole state, and they were common here. Cougar populations are on the rebound. As a biologist, I cannot say that a cougar doesn’t exist in Alabama, but we have nothing to confirm that they do reside in or are passing through the state.”


Black Panthers?

Each year, people all over the country report seeing not just big cats, but black panthers. No documented cougar in history ever had black fur. No one ever shot an indisputable photo of a black cougar, produced a positive DNA sample or discovered a body. In fact, the scientific name for cougar, Puma concolor, means “cat of one color.”

“There has never been any evidence of a black cougar confirmed anywhere,” LaRue emphasized. “Cougars do not have melanism, or black pigment, in their genetic makeup. Sometimes, a cougar can look black because of how dark the forest is or if someone sees it in low-light conditions. Some cougars might have darker than usual brown coats that could look black in the shadows, but there has never been a black cougar confirmed anywhere, ever.”

People reporting black panthers usually misidentify Labrador retrievers, raccoons, small bears, big house cats, coyotes, foxes, feral pigs or dark-colored bobcats. A large black house cat 50 yards away could look like a cougar 200 yards away. Reported sightings typically occur very briefly, perhaps even less than a second long and most often at night or during low-light conditions when distinguishing colors becomes problematic.

People could possibly see a genuine cougar in silhouette, dark shadows or caked in mud and believe they saw a black panther. Sometimes, people might see an actual tan cougar, but remember it as black because that’s what they wanted to see. Reported “panther screams” in the night probably come from birds, particularly barn owls or screech owls.

“Panthers” never existed as a distinct species. People often call cougars, jaguars, African leopards and a few other cats “panthers.” Bobcats, leopards and jaguars sometimes occur in melanistic phases, but even that happens rarely. Native to Mexico and farther south, jaguars once roamed as far north as Colorado or Tennessee, but were never common north of the Rio Grande. Currently, a few jaguars live in Arizona, possibly a few more in extreme southern New Mexico or Texas.

People might confuse another long-tailed cat for a mountain lion. Native to South and Central America, a jaguarundi resembles a small cougar but only grows to about the size of a large house cat. Jaguarundis naturally range as far north as southern Texas. Some were possibly released in Florida early in the 20th century. 

“There have been reports of jaguarundis in Alabama, but we have not been able to confirm them,” Harms said. “Jaguarundis can be hard to differentiate from a regular house cat. They are similar in size and color.”


Repopulating Old Territory?

Could mountain lions repopulate their old range in eastern states? Yes. Is that likely to happen? Not anytime soon. Besides traveling hundreds of miles and crossing major obstacles like the Mississippi River and busy highways, eastbound cougars would not find vast open ranges like in the West.

Suitable habitat that could support lion populations exists in places in eastern states, but most wild land east of the Mississippi River could barely support one cat because of the fragmentation of habitat by human habitation. To re-establish cougars in suitable eastern habitat would require man’s intervention to transport them long distances and release them. That’s not likely to happen.

“For cougars to disperse from where they were born and actually make it to suitable habitat in eastern states would be very difficult,” LaRue advised. “The primary factor impeding mountain lions repopulating eastern states is people. There is habitat and prey to sustain them in places, but will people accept them in those areas?”

Anyone spotting a cougar outside its normal range should contact the local wildlife department. Try to obtain evidence such as a photograph, scat, hair samples or similar proof. It is illegal to shoot one in Alabama. Anyone discovering a potential cougar track should try to preserve it until the experts can arrive to investigate it. For a map of cougar confirmations, see www.cougarnet.org/confirmations.

Editor’s Note: If you happen to get a trail-camera picture of a wandering cougar, please send it to editor@aonmag.com.
© 2018 Alabama Outdoor News