East Tennessee Mountain Lions- Part 2

Published 9:02 am Friday, May 10, 2019

The year was 1961. Bobby, Brenda and Zack were doing what every child did- they were playing in the woods.

Suddenly, the children saw a movement and a mountain lion came walking down the trail they were traveling. The girls screamed and Zack grabbed the youngest child and carried her as they all ran back to their house.

When their dad and brothers found out about the cat, they turned their dogs loose and had the cat’s hide hanging on the barn before nightfall.

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Cougar, puma, mountain lion, catamount, painter and panther are all common names for the same majestic animal that once roamed most of North America.

Today, wildlife biologists say that there are only two sub-species of these cats still in existence, the Western Cougar and the Florida Cougar.

According to these same biologists, the Eastern Mountain Lion was officially declared extinct in 2005 and the last known mountain lion in Tennessee was killed in 1920. But are they really extinct?

I have lived all of my life in the mountains of Carter County and I can recall dozens of incidents that cougars were spotted in this county.

These stories are not coming from individuals who have had too much to drink or from someone seeking attention.

These sightings are coming from everyday people who claim they know what they saw and cannot be convinced otherwise. 

Many states around us recognize that the cougars are back in their state. Missouri has the highest number of confirmed sightings with 74 cats spotted since 1994.

But Missouri is not by itself. The animals have also been spotted in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Georgia.

According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee has had ten confirmed sightings and genic evidence confirms at least one of these cats was a breeding female.

All of these sightings have been in middle and western Tennessee and there have been no confirmed sightings in East Tennessee.

But what is everyone seeing in East Tennessee and mistaking it for a mountain lion? According to biologists, about 45% of these sightings are simple hoaxes created by individuals trying to trick people.

Figure another 53% of these sightings are mistakes made by the individuals. They see a blurry image of a house cat, dog, fox, bear, etc., on a game camera or see something cross in front of them along a road and mistake it for a mountain lion.

That leaves about one to two percent of the sightings to be authentic. The simple fact is some people are seeing these cats. There are just too many sightings to deny that.

To confirm a sighting with TWRA, an individual must submit a hair sample, a photo from a regular camera or a game camera or the mountain lion itself, if it is found dead.

It is against state game laws to kill a mountain lion.

Could they be out here? Yes. First, we have to remember that cougars, especially males, can have a home range that reaches for hundreds of miles.

This was proven in 2011 when a cougar from South Dakota traveled as far as Connecticut before it was struck by a car and killed.

So, having cougars in East Tennessee could be a possibility because they could travel that far seeking to expand their home range.

Secondly, it’s safe to say that East Tennessee has everything that is needed to sustain a breeding population of mountain lions.

We have a healthy population of game animals such as deer, turkey, rabbits, squirrels, and other small animals so a cougar population could find plenty of food in the deep hollows and hills of these mountains.

Finally, much of East Tennessee is untamed wilderness area that would give these cats a good home range without human encroachment. The North Cherokee Forest is just one of the undeveloped areas that cats could live and prosper.

It wasn’t that long ago when coyotes weren’t seen in Tennessee. Little by little they moved east expanding their territory until now they are living on the outskirts of every major town in Tennessee.

They are literally found from Memphis to Mountain City. Are cougars spreading across the state like this?

Are there mountain lions in east Tennessee? Yes and no.

I believe there are a few that pass through this area and maybe one or two that call these mountains home, but we cannot prove this until someone takes a photo of one, finds hair that can be used for DNA testing or photographs a cougar on a game camera.

When one of these things happen, then we can confirm the existence of these mighty cats in our back yards.