Cougars In South Georgia
Several western cougars that were released in north Florida in February (1993) have been making forays into Georgia, and two of the big cats traveled as far north as I-16 in Bulloch County before they were rounded up by wildlife officials and trucked back to Florida.
The cougars are part of a Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission study to test the feasibility of introducing Florida panthers to north Florida. There are only an estimated 30 to 50 Florida panthers remaining in the wild, all in extreme south Florida, and biologists want to establish a population in a different area.
Since there are so few Florida panthers, biologists are wary about releasing them in north Florida, so the western cougars are being used as “surrogates” to study what might happen if Florida panthers are released. The 10 cougars were released in the Pinhook Swamp area of northern Baker County in Florida. All the male cougars released in the study have been sterilized, so the western cougars can’t breed.
One thing the western cats are showing biologists is that if Florida panthers are released in north Florida, Georgia might just benefit, too, because at least four of the 10 western cougars have spent time across the border in Georgia.
Two of the cougars crossed north of 1-16 in Bulloch County and were rounded up by wildlife officials on June 21 and 22.
“We had set I-16 as the northern boundary of how far we would let the cougars range,” said Jim Brady of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission.
Brady said two cats showed every indication of continuing north into the Savannah River drainage.
“Whenever a large animal is translocated, it is typical for them to range long distances,” Brady said. “The cougars have been restricting themselves to habitat that offers cover and security, so they’ve mostly been following creek and river drainages.”
Another cougar spent time in the Valdosta area, briefly sampling the living conditions at Grand Bay WMA before heading back across the Florida line.
Five years ago a similar study using five western cougars was unsuccessful because three of the cougars were killed, two were shot and one was hit by a car. None of the 10 cats in the current study has been killed, but one is missing, and another had to be removed.
“Eight are still being tracked, but we lost the signal on one,” Brady said. “It just quit, and the animal hasn’t turned up.”
Another one of the cougars found easy meals in an exotic game park in Florida and was removed from the study and sent back to Texas.
“Our policy is that if one of the cougars gets into trouble two times, we send it back.”
The study is scheduled to continue until 1995 so folks in south Georgia should not be overly surprised if a cougar is spotted in their area. Sportsmen are being urged to help protect the cougars by spreading the word about the study.
The penalty for killing one of the cougars is a $5,000 fine and five years in prison.
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