Rambling Cougar Takes A Tour Of Georgia

A western cougar, released in north Florida as part of a scientific study, traveled as far north as Thomson, Georgia near I-20.

Rob Pavey | September 10, 1995

Sleeping like a baby, this wandering cougar was tranquilized near Thomson, Georgia after traveling more than 400 miles from Baker County, Florida.

A 5-foot-long, 140-pound vasectomized cougar that wandered into Georgia from a Florida wildlife experiment last fall reaffirmed what wildlife authorities have insisted for decades.

“If you think you’ve seen a cougar, you probably didn’t see a cougar,” said Vic VanSant, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist, ‘This cat was in Georgia six months, right in the middle of deer season, and we didn’t get the first reported sighting.”

The cougar, known as “T-40,” was among 10 released in February 1993 at the Pinhook Swamp area of northern Baker County, Florida. It was an experiment to see if the near-extinct Florida panthers — now clinging to existence, with only an estimated 30 to 50 remaining in Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp — could be reintroduced to northern Florida.

The idea, VanSant said, was to release and study vasectomized western cougars to develop techniques for the eventual release of the rare eastern cats into new habitat. If some of the Florida panthers can’t be relocated, the dwindling number of cats will crossbreed and weaken their genetic structure.

Although several cats released in Florida wandered into south Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp and farther north. one particularly energetic cat, T-40, made his way along more than 400 miles of rugged Peach State terrain before the experiment ended, and he was tranquilized and sent home to Texas earlier this year.

VanSant, who works in DNR’s Thomson, Ga. Game Management office, said wildlife technicians used radio gear to monitor the cat’s movements. Biologists used aircraft to locate and track T-40, which was wired with a tiny transmitter.

The full-grown male likely enjoyed his jaunt across Georgia, due to the abundance of habitat and prey, VanSant said. However, what the big cat probably wanted most, another cougar to mate with, was nowhere to be found.

“As far as we know, there aren’t any more (cougars) in Georgia,” he said.

Eastern cougars once ranged up and down the east coast and were prolific across Georgia. But loss of habitat and human intolerance reduced their numbers, eventually isolating the species in the one tiny colony in Florida.’

“Our assumption, based on the last 60 years’ worth of observations, is that they’ve basically been gone from the state since the early part of the century,” VanSant said.

“We get occasional reports of sightings all over—people say they’ve seen a big cat. But when we check it out, you can’t verify it, or the tracks turn out to be a dog.’*

The few verified cougar sightings have proven to be illegally-kept pets that escaped or were released into the wild.

Cougars are secretive, mainly nocturnal and don’t like to be anywhere near humans. They dine primarily on deer, wild pigs, and small mammals.

Although most cougars released in the Florida experiment adopted a relatively compact home range, two or three actually crossed the border into Georgia, VanSant said.

But T-40 was the only one that really traveled.

“At some point last summer, it ended up in the vicinity of Jesup and Brunswick,”he said. “They recaptured him there, examined him and re-released it. Then it wandered north, following a northwesterly direction and ended up in lower Burke County last September.”

T-40 then adopted the dense forests between Vidette in Burke County and Louisville last fall, where it lived for several weeks just outside Jefferson County’s largest city.

What did he do all that time?

“We can’t really determine,” VanSant said. “No one saw it during that time period, even though it was just a few miles from the Louisville airport.”

The rest of the cat’s journey included a jaunt south to an area near Statesboro, where he stayed several weeks. Then T-40 returned to Burke County, hanging around near Waynesboro, before heading back toward Warrenton in early January. Having visited the Warrenton area, the cat then headed northeast to the Washington-Wilkes county area, VanSant said.

“He ended up in McDuffie County in February. That was about the time they decided he was roaming too much, and the study was going to be over in June, that they’d go ahead and catch him and take him home,” he said.

A specially-trained crew, after locating T-40 a few miles outside of Thomson, approached the cat with special tracking dogs, a tranquilizer, and inflatable pillows to spread beneath the tree to avoid injuring the cat when it fell out.

“The first time the dogs treed the cat, the dart missed,” VanSant said. “We already had the air bags inflated under the tree, and the cat jumped down and took off.”

Silhouetted against the McDuffie County sky, the cougar is about to get a dose of tranquilizer and a ride home to Texas.

A few hours later, the dogs had T-40 treed again and he was recaptured without incident and returned to Florida authorities, VanSant said.

“The purpose of the whole thing was to demonstrate whether the population of panthers in Florida could be re-established,” he said. “Scientists wanted to document how they’d react to being relocated, and they wanted to know, if it was necessary to relocate Florida panthers, what could they expect.”

Researchers are now analyzing data collected during the cougar study and should know soon whether any of the Florida panthers can be relocated to north Florida.

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