Cougars Move East
Big cats are showing up in more eastern places, but what’s the likelihood of one showing up in the Peach State?
One afternoon, my son and I drove through a WMA. Canals paralleled both sides of the road. We spotted a large dark long-tailed animal crossing the road about 75 yards ahead of us. Both of us immediately said “cat!”
I stepped on the gas. Seconds later, we reached the spot where the long-tailed black animal disappeared and spotted the creature—a very large, but normal, brown otter swimming in the canal. We didn’t expect to see an aquatic otter crossing the dry road in mid-afternoon. In the distance and because of the way light filtered through the trees, the silhouetted otter looked black and moved like a cat.
Every year, hunters and other outdoorsmen report seeing large cats in Georgia and other Southeastern states where none should exist. Cougars once ranged from northern British Columbia to southern Chile and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, populating all of the lower 48 states, including Georgia. The eastern subspecies roamed over most of North America east of the Mississippi River. Did cougars return or did they never leave? Are they really here?
Cougars, also called pumas, mountain lions, panthers and other names, can weigh more than 150 pounds and easily take down deer, elk, cattle—even humans! To protect their livestock, early settlers tried to exterminate cats and other predators since the earliest colonial days. They nearly succeeded, particularly east of the Mississippi River.
After centuries of indiscriminate shooting, bounties and facing expanding human populations with the resulting habitat destruction, cougars largely disappeared from eastern North America by the early 20th century. With little evidence that cougars remained in eastern states outside of Florida, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar subspecies extinct on Jan. 22, 2018.
The Eastern Trend
Cougar breeding populations exist 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. However, some young adult males go on a walkabout looking for mates and home territory, and sometimes they show up well beyond their established ranges.
“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, but there has certainly been a trend of cougars moving eastward since the 1990s,” commented Dr. Michelle LaRue, executive director of the Cougar Network and a wildlife ecologist. “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. 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. 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.”
In 2000, a train killed a lion in southern Illinois. A bowhunter killed one in Mercer County along the Mississippi River in 2004. In 2008, police shot and killed a 150-lb. cougar in Chicago. It came from the Black Hills of South Dakota. 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 South Dakota to Greenwich, Conn. where a car hit and killed it. 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.
On Nov. 30, 2008, Louisiana confirmed the first indisputable evidence of a cougar in the Bayou State for more than 40 years when a 125-lb. male appeared in Bossier City. 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 600 miles west.
Earlier that year, trail-camera images of cougars showed up in Winn Parish in north-central Louisiana, plus 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. In August 2011, a trail 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 with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “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 of big cats in Louisiana or other Southeastern states.”
Cougars could easily reach western Louisiana from breeding populations in Texas, but could they cross the Mississippi River? The great stream creates a formidable natural barrier for cougars moving eastward. However, the Connecticut and Chicago cats found a way to cross or go around the river. Other cats could do the same. Some did.
In November 2014, people found a cougar carcass in Bourbon County, Ky. In September 2015, 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 wounded a cougar. DNA evidence obtained from the arrow revealed that the lion also came from the Black Hills of South Dakota about 1,200 miles away. In September 2016, a trail camera shot a photo of a cougar in Wayne County near the Alabama line.
“It’s possible all these sightings came from one cat, but it could have been two,” said Joy Sweaney, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologist. “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. Big cats could possibly wander through the state, but actually seeing a cougar in Tennessee is extremely rare.”
The Northern Push
While an eastern roaming cougar sweeping through the Peach State can’t be ruled completely out of the question, a more likely candidate would be a Florida panther that heads north and out of its normal range.
“Cougars are native to Georgia,” explained Charlie Killmaster, a WRD biologist. “The eastern cougar covered much of the state in historic times, but they were pretty much gone by 1900. The Florida panther ranged up into southern Georgia. Before 2008, the last confirmed wild Florida panther in Georgia was killed in the southern Okefenokee Swamp in 1925.”
The 2008 big cat that Killmaster is referencing was killed in November 2008. A man shot a healthy, 4-year-old 140-lb. fully clawed wild male cougar in Troup County on the Georgia side of West Point Lake near LaGrange. Genetically identified as a Florida panther, it had embarked on its trip from Hendry County near Fort Myers, Fla. and wandered northward about 650 miles. Biologist identified both of its parents in Florida.
“As evidenced by the 2008 cat, it’s not impossible for big cats to travel up to our state, but we don’t have a documented breeding population of cougars in Georgia,” Killmaster said. “As the Florida panther population continues to grow and expand, it would not surprise me to see more documented incidents of big cats turning up in Georgia. Big predators move across tremendous expanses at times. I don’t know if a cat moving up from Florida would stay in Georgia. They tend to prefer larger expanses of uninhabited land. In Georgia, the most suitable habitat for big cats would be in the Okefenokee Swamp in the southeastern part of the state.”
In Georgia, ranges of the eastern and Florida subspecies probably overlapped. Florida panthers once ranged from eastern Texas to Arkansas and down through Georgia into all of Florida. Today, only a remnant population survives in about 3.1 million acres of south Florida, primarily in the Big Cypress and Everglades wetlands. Cougars currently occupy about 5% of the original range.
In the 1970s, the Florida panther population plunged to about 20 individuals, making them one of the rarest and most endangered animals in the world. Because of interbreeding, the isolated Florida population suffered genetic problems. In 1993, wildlife biologists brought in eight female mountain lions from Texas to breed with the Florida cats and add fresh genes. The plan worked.
“Today about 120 to 230 adult and subadult Florida panthers remain in Florida,” explained Jamie Clift Rager, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson. “The only cougar breeding population east of the Mississippi River occurs primarily south of Lake Okeechobee. Panthers sometimes appear in central Florida. These are primarily dispersing males from the core breeding population in south Florida.”
In the spring of 2017, Florida wildlife officials verified the existence of two cougar kittens northeast of Fort Myers. Females seldom roam as much as males and typically require about 48,000 acres for a home range compared to more than 100,000 acres for an adult male.
“Female panthers tend to remain close to where they were born,” Rager confirmed. “As a result, the natural expansion of a breeding range can be a slow process. Two adult females, one with kittens, were documented in Charlotte and Highlands counties in March 2017, the first time since 1973 that females have been confirmed north of the Caloosahatchee River. Nevertheless, it’s too soon to conclude that this marks an expansion of the breeding range. Natural repopulation out of Florida is not impossible, but it will likely be a very slow process that could take many decades.”
Georgia Big Cats, 1993-1995
A few big cats did roam Georgia less than three decades ago. From 1993 to 1995, researchers released 19 cougars—11 females and eight vasectomized males—into a wilderness that connected the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the Pinhook Swamp in Baker County, Florida, and Osceola National Forest near Lake City, Fla.
The 19 cats included six raised in captivity and 13 wild ones captured in Texas. Apparently, one vasectomy failed because a male sired litters with three females.
“The cats in the pilot study were all radio collared and monitored,” Killmaster said. “They went all over the place. All 19 cats in the study were subsequently killed or recaptured and removed.”
One female cougar released in February 1993 went to the St. Marys River, headed south along the Suwannee River and turned back north to Valdosta before being captured in June near Sylvania. A male cat also released in February 1993 visited Fort Stewart. Then it wandered toward Fitzgerald before turning north toward Washington, where it was recaptured in January 1995. A 3-year-old male released in August 1994 walked east along Interstate 10 toward Macclenny, Fla. before turning north. It was captured between Lumpkin and Blakely in June 1995.
Project officials wanted to test the feasibility of restoring cougars to part of their historic range, but the cats suffered a high mortality rate. Two cats were shot and three others, including a kitten, were killed on highways.
“I Saw A Cougar!”
Sighting stories make interesting conversation but can’t prove anything. The person may have seen an actual cougar or perhaps misidentified a bobcat, coyote, otter, domestic cat or another animal. To document the presence of a cougar in an area, biologists need physical evidence such as a track, scat, clear photograph or a body.
“We get hundreds of calls about big cats every year, but in all my years here, the only one with actual evidence was the cat shot in 2008,” Killmaster said. “The majority are misidentifications. Every single trail-camera photo I’ve seen of a cougar supposedly from Georgia was too blurry to positively identify the animal, but cats show up really clear on Florida cameras.”
Many people also claim to see not just large cats, but black cats. Bobcats, leopards and jaguars sometimes occur in melanistic or black phases, but rarely. Native to Mexico, Central and South America, jaguars once strayed as far north as Colorado and Tennessee, but were never common north of the Rio Grande. Currently, a few jaguars live in extreme southern Arizona, possibly in southern New Mexico and Texas.
No documented cougar in history ever had black fur. No one ever got an indisputable photo of a black cougar, produced a positive DNA sample or a body. In fact, the scientific name for cougar, Puma concolor, means “cat of one color.” Cougars simply do not carry the melanism gene to create black pigment.
“There has never been a documented melanistic phase of a mountain lion, Florida panther or eastern cougar in all of history,” Killmaster emphasized. “Black jaguars and leopards are not separate species, but just another color phase. Even then, the black phase in those animals is very rare. The only ‘black’ mountain lion that I’ve ever heard of was one that was actually dyed black for a Disney TV movie, the Ghost of Cypress Swamp, which was filmed in Georgia in the 1970s.”
Cougars sometimes grow darker-than-usual brown coats, but never black. Sometimes, people might see a normal cougar, but remember it as black because that’s what they wanted to see.
“Future Georgia Lions?”
Could mountain lions repopulate parts of their old range in Georgia and other 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 or northbound cougars would not find enough unbroken suitable habitat.
Some suitable habitat that could support lion populations exists in eastern states, but most wild land east of the Mississippi River could barely support one cat because of habitat fragmentation. To re-establish cougars in suitable habitat in eastern states would require human intervention to capture, transport and release them as in the 1993-95 experiment.
“There are patches of habitat in the East, but it’s not like mountain lions know it’s there,” LaRue explained. “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. For cougars to disperse from where they were born and actually make it to suitable habitat in eastern states would be very difficult. The primary factor impeding mountain lions from repopulating eastern states is people.”
If you have physical evidence of a cougar in the Peach State, contact the nearest Georgia DNR office. You’ll need a solid photograph, scat, hair samples or other physical evidence. When possible, try to preserve any evidence by putting a bucket or something over it.
For a map of where cougars have been confirmed, see www.cougarnet.org/confirmations.
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