Phantom Cats

Tracing the mysterious movements of the Mid-South Cougar

 

Story by Russ Thompson

On August 3, 2016, a large feline was photographed by a trail camera in the forested countryside of Humphreys County in middle Tennessee. There was no mistaking the large paws, tawny coat and long tail of the big cat known by many names: mountain lion, shadow cat, puma, painter, but most commonly, the cougar. 

 

 

The trail camera held evidence that was impossible to deny or ignore. “We've had a lot of people report they've seen cougars through the years, but we've never been able to verify. We finally have verified it through pictures,” Doug Markham, communications director for the TWRA, says. In recent years, cougars have been spotted in western and middle Tennessee, far outside of their eastern U.S. stomping grounds. Since 2015, there have been 10 confirmed sightings in these areas, which brings many questions to mind: Are these cougars establishing a population or merely transients? Is there enough prey and habitat for them to remain a viable presence in these areas? How will the animal fare amongst a human population that hasn’t had to coexist with these big cats for more than a hundred years?

 

 

The cougar is a native to the Mid-South area, but until recently, its presence hadn’t been confirmed since the early 1900s. Mainly due to habitat loss and overhunting, the animal was extirpated or brought to extinction in the area. In fact, the subspecies known as the eastern cougar is now widely thought to be extinct. The animals that are coming into Tennessee are thought to be western cougars that are traveling eastward from established Midwest populations. DNA from a hair sample that came from one of the sites in middle Tennessee traced the animal back to the black hills of SouthDakota. TWRA officials say that cougar territories can span over 150 miles, and the big cats can travel up to 600 miles in order to establish home ranges. They certainly won’t let an enormous river such as the Mississippi stand in their way.

 

 

According to Joy Sweaney, a wildlife Biologistwho works with the turkey and cougarprograms of the TWRA, the ten confirmed cougar sightings are more than likely one or two individuals that traveled from the Midwest into western Tennessee and then on into middle Tennessee, possibly following rivers and streams. Sweaney says the first cougar sighting in 2015 was in Obion County in the northwest part of the state. The next sighting was in Carroll County, southeast of thatlocation. After that, there were six sightings in Humphreys County east of Carroll County from November 2015 through August of 2016 and two sightings in Wayne County, southeast of there. There have been no sightings since 2016. So, it seems a likely scenario that asingle cougar found its way into western Tennessee, made its way east and south through the state, and more than likely has moved on to parts unknown. “There are currently no breeding populations in Tennessee, but there is enough habitat and prey such as deer to sustain them in the future. If the hills near Los Angeles and the areas in Florida are able to sustain them, we should be able to as well,” says Sweaney. Sweaney also says that although the individual that was captured by the trail camera is likely a male, there are more female cougars turning up in areas east of their western habitats. This is a sign that western populations are on the rise and some cougars are seeking out areas to the east. 

 

 

Richard Rummel, the black bear program leader of the Mississippi Dept. of Wildlife says that he has investigated countless sightings in Mississippi over the years, but he has been unable to confirm any of them. “We never have been able to capture a cougar on trail cam. Usually the animals spotted are large dogs or even bobcats,” says Rummel. However, Mississippi residents shouldn’t be too confident that their state will remain cougar-free. According to Rummel, if cougars are moving into Tennessee, than it is only a matter of time before they start turning up in surrounding states. 

 

 

Attitudes about cougars moving into the area are unsurprisingly mixed. According to Sweaney, conservationists and naturalists are excited about the possibility of the cougar’s return but many landowners, especially those who own cattle, are apprehensive. Sweaney says that if you see a cougar, you need to avoid contact, and keep kids and pets from running away and activating the cougar’s predator response. If the cougar appears curious, do not be submissive; wave your arms, make lots of noise, and try to make your way to safety. In the unlikely event that you see a cougar or evidence of their presence such as tracks, Sweaney says that you can report photographs and videos to ask.twra@tn.gov. If you take a photo of a track, place a small object near it such as a key or a coin so that the officials can gauge the size of the prints. TWRA has launched educational outreach programs and a social media campaign to educate people about cougars. They have also started a You Tube show called Wildcasts. 

 

 

Although cougars have not established a breeding population, it has become clear that the animals are moving slowly but surely into our area. For some, this is news to be excited about, while others may find it a bit harder to swallow. Either way, a once common denizen of the Mid South may one day reclaim its rightful place as a natural predator, presiding over the forests and mountains of the South; not just a phantom cat of our dreams. 

 

A Mid-South Cougar Case Study 

 

The news of a possible cougar sighting in Obion County has generated a lot of interest recently. Why has this trail camera photo generated so much interest? After all, the TWRA receives many photos and “eye witness” reports every year. The reason this one is different is because the location is verifiable, there is no doubt the animal is, in fact, a cougar, and there is no evidence of tampering with the photo. In past photos received, there have been issues with the photos. Either there is evidence that someone “photoshopped” a cougar image, taken from the Internet, into a Tennessee background; or a photo copied from the Internet is claimed to have been taken in Tennessee; or the image is so indefinite that it could be a photo of a dog, housecat, bobcat, fox, or some other animal.  In this recent incident, the elements required for TWRA to verify the authenticity are met. 

 

First… The photo is date stamped and the individual who got the picture on his trail camera provided the original SD card to the TWRA for analysis. The photo is stamped September 19, but he informed the TWRA that he set the date wrong by a day and the photo was actually taken on September 20.

Although the head of the animal is not visible, enough of the animal is clearly seen to definitively identify it as a cougar. However, it is difficult to be certain of the size of the animal. Since the original SD card was provided, expert analysts looked at other photos taken around the same time. Both photos are of deer.

Then, to get an estimate of size, a deer photo was superimposed onto the cougar photo.

Obviously, the animal in the photo is too big to be a housecat.  It is almost as long as a deer, even though not as tall. 

 

In order to show, definitively, that the photo was, in fact, taken in Tennessee, an agent of the TWRA went to the location of the trail camera a couple of days later and took a photo from the same vantage point as the trail camera. The soybeans in the cougar photo had been harvested, but in all other respects, the trial camera photo matched the photo taken by the TWRA agent almost exactly.

 

The tree trunk on the left, and the lower leaves in the centerof the photo, matched in both photos, confirming that the cougar photo was taken in Obion County at the location of the trail camera. 

There was also no evidence that a cougar photo had been cut and pasted into a background photo. When the cougarimage is zoomed up close, there is no evidence of irregularities around the edges.

Unfortunately, there were no tracks, hair, or other physical evidence of a cougar found at the site, and without physicalevidence with DNA to be tested, the TWRA cannot verify whether the cougar in the photo is an escaped pet, a western cougar, or a Florida panther (cougar). 

 

So, the TWRA can confirm there was, on September 20, 2015, a cougar in Obion County Tennessee. Currently, however, the TWRA does not know for certain the origin of the cougar, whether it is a truly wild cougar or a pet, or where it is now.  Small numbers of cougars are knownto exist in the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas, and there have been many confirmed sightings. However, the research conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation has found only young male cougars, probably expanding their ranges from western states. They have not found any female cougars in Missouri, so they do not, at this time, believe they have a self-sustaining, reproducingpopulation yet. 

 

If cougars continue to expand their ranges from western states, as they have been doing for the past several decades, there will be cougars in Tennessee. West Tennessee willprobably be the first affected by any range expansion. It is important to note, any natural range expansion of cougars into Tennessee will be animals that are protected by law. The TWRA has never opened a hunting season on them. Therefore, it would be illegal to kill a cougar in Tennessee .

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