Just the other day, a friend of mine who is an avid trail runner told me he saw a mountain lion on a Chattanooga trail. Are mountain lions really here?
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency confirmed reports of mountain lions in Tennessee in Humphreys and Obion counties in 2015 and again this year in Humphreys and Carroll counties. There has been no confirmation of a mountain lion in the Chattanooga area; however, there have been reported sightings. TWRA receives a lot of reports of sightings, and even photos, that they diligently research. There are a lot of folks who tamper with photos and some who simply are seeing something that is not a mountain lion, more likely a bobcat or even a house cat. The best confirmations often occur on game cameras with a still photo or video.
Puma concolor is also known as mountain lion, catamount, puma, panther and cougar. This apex predator once roamed the U.S. from coast to coast, making mountain ranges, woodland forests and river corridors their homes. Like the red wolf, early colonization extirpated the cougar from a large majority of its territory. Predators were terribly misunderstood and hunted, resulting in plummeting numbers. It’s been perhaps 100 years since mountain lions had a presence in Tennessee.
These confirmed sightings should be hailed as a very exciting thing, not a bad or scary thing. Restoring apex predators to the landscape is invaluable for ecological balance. Apex predators fill a niche by maintaining the balance of prey. Large predator presence indicates that humans are doing a good job protecting and managing the environment and wildlife resources.
In excerpts from “Cougar, The American Lion,” author Kevin Hansen’s states, “The cougar works a powerful magic on the human imagination. Perhaps it is envy. This majestic feline personifies strength, movement, grace, stealth, independence, and the wilderness spirit. It wanders enormous tracts of American wilderness at will. It is equally at home in forest, desert, jungle, or swamp. An adult cougar can bring down a full-grown mule deer in seconds. It yields to few creatures, save bears and humans. The cougar’s solitary and stealthy lifestyle feeds its mystery. Unfortunately, mystery breeds fear, myth, and misinformation. Since our European ancestors first landed on American shores 500 years ago, we have waged war on large predators. The grizzly, wolf, jaguar, and cougar are now gone from the majority of their original ranges, and loss of habitat now looms as the greatest threat to the small populations that survive. Only in the last three decades have wildlife biologists begun to chip away at the fable and folklore and reveal the cougar for the remarkable carnivore that it is.”
Education is key to dispelling myths; understanding and appreciation breed respect, and respect creates the desire to conserve.
What is the source of these Tennessee cougars?
Per TWRA, the cougars being sighted in Tennessee are like the Western cougar subspecies that is likely recolonizing and expanding their range from the Midwest. DNA analysis of a hair sample from one of the 2015 Tennessee sightings confirmed that animal likely originated, at least genetically, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Male cougars, like much wildlife, disperse from their natal group and begin the search for their own territory and mates. The cougar has a very large range of up to 370 square miles. Cougars have a stepping stone dispersal, according to Dr. Michelle LaRue, a research assistant and wildlife expert with the University of Minnesota. Cougars begin travelling, find a suitable place to live, stay there for a while, then move on to the next suitable area. With their large range, this is a gradual process. Cougars are searching for three things - habitat, food and mates. The Midwest is largely not a good habitat for them, so it’s reasonable to think that the cougar continues his dispersal, reaching the eastern U.S. where lush habitats with mountain ranges and good food, namely deer, are readily available. Habitat with rugged terrain and forest cover that is difficult for people to reach is preferred. Suburban and urban areas do the cougar no good.
Cougars are probably not breeding in in Tennessee, yet. The confirmed cougars have all been males, with one exception in Carroll County. Females are not forced to disperse from their natal range, therefore they don’t travel as far as the males.
When there is confirmation of this animal’s presence, TWRA simply knows there’s a cougar there. No action is taken to move them or kill them. Reports continue to be investigated and research continues.
As a citizen, do your own research. Do not believe what you see on social media and don’t perpetuate these postings. People often tell me they saw a big cat print. I always ask what it looked like. Invariably, it’s described as a large paw print with claw marks. Claw marks indicate a canid, not a felid. Cat claws retract! Learn more about your local wildlife - research habitats, sounds, food choices, prints and other indicators of wildlife. Knowledge is power!
Cougars most likely will continue to expand into Tennessee. TWRA states hunting the cats remains illegal, but their populations may become large enough to eventually support a season. What’s exciting is that this top predator has returned to its former range!