Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cougars back in Tennessee

Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer
Dec 16, 2015
A photograph on a trail camera in West Tennessee’s Obion County captured what appears to be a cougar, even though wildlife officials insist that the big cats don’t exist in Tennessee.

Biologists with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have viewed the black-and-white photograph and are investigating. So far no physical evidence, such as tracks, hair or scat has been found in the area.

However, there have been documented cougar sightings in the nearby states of Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois, and it is possible that some of the animals could have migrated into Tennessee.

There is plenty of precedent for similar wildlife migrations into the state. Just three decades ago coyotes were virtually unheard of in Tennessee, and now they are everywhere. Armadillos likewise migrated into the state a few years ago, first into West Tennessee and now they are widespread in Middle Tennessee.

Cougars could easily survive in many of the remote, rugged areas of the state, including the Reelfoot Lake region where the trail cam photo was taken earlier this fall.

Cougars - also known as panthers, mountain lions and catamounts - are native to Tennessee. Early pioneers reported frequent encounters with them, including documented cases of attacks by the large predators.

The mother of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was injured by a cougar that attacked her in Bedford County in the early 1800s. Forrest used hounds to track down the cougar, which he shot.
Late into the 1800s, cougars were encountered on the Cumberland Plateau.

Cougars, like Tennessee’s indigenous buffalo, wolves and elk, gradually disappeared from the state due to loss of habitat, decline of natural prey, and hunting by humans. Early settlers seized every opportunity to kill the large predators, both for their personal safety and for the protection of their free-ranging livestock.

Tennessee’s last wild cougar was believed to have been killed in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains about a century ago.

However, reported sightings of cougars have continued over the years in all parts of the state. Wildlife officials concede that some of the sightings are credible - that some big cats are indeed out there. But they contend that the animals that have been sighted are not “wild” cougars but are instead exotic pets that have escaped or been set free by their owners.

The TWRA’s official position is there are no wild, breeding cougars in the state.

Nevertheless, it is against the law to harm a cougar if one should be encountered. Under TWRA regulations, no animal can be killed or captured unless there is an official hunting season for it.

The law is written that way to avoid having to designate individual protections for the thousands of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians throughout the state. So unless there is a designated hunting or trapping season for a specific species of wildlife, it can’t be hunted, trapped or otherwise molested.

That goes for cougars - if they’re out there somewhere.


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