British Columbia, Canada --- Cougar (Felis concolor)- captive in winter habitat --- Image by © Don Johnston/All Canada Photos/Corbis

A story by Knoxville CBS affiliate Volunteer TV yesterday sent Facebook into quite a’flutter. The story, TWRA confirms cougars in Tennessee, was shared hundreds of times on Facebook and generated quite a lot of discussion about the presence of cougars in East Tennessee.

It’s true: TWRA has confirmed cougars in Tennessee…but sometimes a story isn’t quite what it seems.

I try to be very careful about being critical of news media — particularly local news media. After all, this is my industry, too, and the old saying is quite true: when you’re pointing your finger, there really are four more pointing back at you.

With that said, the WVLT story is a bit misleading — perhaps not intentionally.

While TWRA has confirmed the presence of a cougar — or cougars — in Tennessee, that isn’t exactly new news. TWRA has been talking cougars for over a year. In January 2016, the agency set up a website for cougar sightings. (See it here.) A month prior to that, TWRA’s Doug Markham called a Middle Tennessee trail camera video of a cougar “the best I’ve ever seen in terms of it being a cougar.”

Additionally, the story leaves the impression that there is a population of cougars in Tennessee. However, TWRA does not believe that to be the case.

As the WVLT story points out, there have been nine confirmed cases of cougar sightings in  Middle and West Tennessee. (TWRA maps them here.) All of them were captured on trail cameras — motion-activated cameras often used by hunters to pattern wildlife.

Many of those sightings were clustered in Humphreys County, where six different trail camera photos were submitted and confirmed by TWRA to be of actual cougars. Two were in Wayne County, and another was in Obion County. Additionally, a hair sample submitted by a hunter from Carroll County was proven to be from a cougar.

Joy Sweaney, TWRA’s wildlife biologist who heads up the agency’s new cougar program, said on the agency’s podcast earlier this week that the agency believes all of those sightings may have been from the same cat.

“One, maybe two…and maybe zero at this point,” Sweaney said in regards to a question from Markham about how many cougars are in Tennessee. “I’ve shared the game camera photos that we’ve had with panther experts from other states where they’re plentiful, and, you know, it’s not completely conclusive. A lot of photos are taken at night, and they’re a little blurry, so we don’t know that it’s one individual, but there’s nothing to indicate that the cougar we’ve had on these game cameras for the past year and a half is more than one individual.”

Looking at the map of confirmed sightings, it isn’t hard to follow TWRA’s line of logic. The first sighting was in Obion County in West Tennessee in September 2015. The Humphreys County photos were all taken between November 2015 and February 2016 — except for one photo submitted in August 2016. A month later, on Sept. 4, 2016, two photos were submitted from nearby Wayne County . . . and there have been no confirmed cougar sightings since that point.

So, in essence, there were nine confirmed sightings of a cougar in 11 and a half months, and now there have been none in over five months. That isn’t definitive proof that this cat has moved on; six months elapsed between the sighting in Humphreys County in February 2016 and the last sighting in Humphreys County in August 2016. But, at the very least, the lack of recent sightings lends to the theory that all of the sightings thus far could be from the same cougar.

Wayne County is a long way from Obion County, but wildlife biologists say that cougars have a huge home range of 150 miles, and can move well over 500 miles in search of new territory.

A reformed skeptic

Before I go further, let me say that I was once convinced that cougars were present in the mountains of East Tennessee. It irritated me when government agencies, like TWRA, vehemently denied the presence of big cats in this part of the world. How could they possibly say with certainty that there were no big cats in the hundreds of thousands of uninhibited acres of the Cumberland Mountains?

Fresh out of high school, I was determined to prove the existence of cougars in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Armed with reports from an old hunter in Knoxville who swore that a cougar had walked past his camp in a remote area of the BSF on more than one occasion, I set out for that area as a start. I intended to camp for several days, if necessary, to catch a glimpse of this animal for myself.

It didn’t take long to realize that this would be a daunting task. A little research quickly taught me that the chances of seeing a cougar in the same place twice would be a miracle of sorts. And they tread lightly, leaving little evidence of their presence even in muddy areas. (Some folks in western states where cougars are plentiful swear that cougars can walk on snow while hardly leaving a print.) It was going to be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Back then, trail cameras were just starting to come into the mainstream, and were still too expensive for most ordinary folks to own. I latched on to stories about hunters who heard unidentified animal screams in the mountains, or saw cats leaping across the road in front of their car around midnight, as evidence of cougars on the northern plateau.

A decade later, I had to admit that the presence of cougars here was highly unlikely — at least as a constant presence. These days, everyone has a trail camera. I have three of them. I’ve captured photos of deer, bears, bobcats, turkeys, and just about every other critter imaginable — including the two-legged ones that walk upright and have opposable thumbs — but never a cougar. Nor has any other person I know.

With so many cameras in the woods — it’s almost impossible to walk through the woods without stepping in front of one — where’s the proof? If cougars were a constant presence in this part of the world, they would be showing up on camera. And they aren’t.

It’s true that reports sometimes emerge of trail camera pictures that captured a cougar. These pop up on Facebook from time to time. But they’re usually taken by a friend of a friend, never easy to track down. And the actual pictures that are posted usually turn out to be of a house cat, a bobcat, or of a real cougar that was taken in some other state. (Here’s an example of a Facebook photo that was making the rounds just last summer, purportedly from Campbell County.)

Transient critters are a possibility

Much like there were always random black bears that wandered across the northern Cumberland Plateau even before the TWRA and National Park Service worked together to establish a breeding population here, there is always the possibility of a stray cougar wandering through.

In August 1977, a large cat created quite a stir in the Helenwood area of Scott County. Several people claimed to have seen a panther, several others claimed to have heard it scream at night…and once the remains of a farmer’s dismembered pig were discovered, TWRA got involved. The agency told the Independent Herald at that time that cougars would be rare — though not unheard of — on the Cumberland Plateau. Officially, the agency said only that it doubted the story. Off the record, a wildlife officer told the newspaper that he believed the cat probably was, in fact, a panther.

The cat wandered away, and was never seen again. There have been other occasions over the years when a wandering cougar has been seen in the eastern U.S. Wildlife officials usually chalk it up as someone’s unwanted pet that was turned out into the wild, or perhaps a western cougar that was wandering through. (The hair sample in Carroll County, for example, was found by DNA analysis to be a female cougar with genetics similar to big cats found in South Dakota. If that sample was, in fact, from the cougar turning up on West Tennessee trail cameras, it would seem that it wandered down to West Tennessee from the Dakotas.)

The eastern cougar — which once inhabited the Cumberland Plateau and much of the rest of the eastern U.S. — was officially listed as extinct in 2015 and removed from the federal endangered species list.

No black panthers

One thing wildlife biologists are always quick to point out, with certainty, is that there’s no such thing as a black cougar. There are black jaguars and black leopards, but the likelihood of seeing one of those in Tennessee is even less than seeing a cougar of any color.

Most purported sightings of cougars in the eastern U.S. are of “black panthers.” Wildlife experts say this is because the sightings are usually after dark, and because they’re often large house cats or even dogs that are mistaken for cougars.

The bottom line?

TWRA has a fairly rigorous process that it goes through — explained here — whenever someone reports a cougar sighting to the agency. If a photo is submitted and the agency can determine that it has not been altered and is actually of a cougar, it sends out a team to investigate further.

If anyone has a photo of a cougar sighting on the Cumberland Plateau, they should submit  it to TWRA for examination.

(And send it to me, too. I want to see it! 🙂