Tennessee cougars are gone, at least for now
It appears that a cougar, or cougars, that took up residence in Middle and West Tennessee a year ago are now gone, according to Joy Sweeney, a wildlife biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
"That's the way I see it," said Sweeney. "We are well into deer season and we've had no more reported sightings or photos."
Between September 2015 and September 2016 Sweeney was able to definitively document ten cougar sightings in Tennessee. Most were confirmed via photographs or even video deer hunters provided from their game trail cameras.
However since that time - more than 15 months at this writing - there has not been a single confirmed sighting.
Sweeney said she believes there is a good chance the ten sightings included two different cougars. She said blood analysis from one animal wounded with a hunter's arrow revealed that cougar was a female. She said, however, experts who reviewed the trail camera photos said that animal was a male.
Whether one or two cougars passed through the state, Sweeney admits she is disappointed that they seem to be gone.
"Yea, a little bit," she said. "It was exciting to think an extirpated species may be coming back."
Sweeney is not surprised, however. Based on other cases of transient cougars straying far from their normal range, she knew there was an excellent chance the big cat, or cats, would move on.
"It does surprise me that it's gone completely off the map and hasn't shown up in other states," said Sweeney.
Sweeney was also surprised that during the year the cat, or cats, remained in Tennessee they never documented a kill site. And she says it is impossible to interpret a reason why they left. The variables are endless. The cat, or cats, could have headed back the direction they came. They could have become victims of unreported road kills. She says the reasons are just as numerous and just as mysterious as why they arrived in the first place.
She does admit they, "could still be out there." Sweeney said, however, even when they were receiving confirmed reports, she knew it was a doubtful that a viable population would establish itself in Tennessee.
"There's a lot space between here and places where there are established populations, " she said. "[Tennessee] has plenty of habitat. But I would expect them to basically 'fill in' those empty spaces before they could or would ever establish a population here."
Cougars remain a hot topic. Even after more than a year without a new sighting, previous NewsChannel9.com Outdoors stories about the Tennessee cougar sightings remain popular. Biologists say that there seems to be a clear expansion of cougar populations eastward. Sweeney asks that anyone who comes across clear evidence of a cougar in Tennessee please contact the Agency by e-mailing Ask.TWRA@tn.gov or calling 615-781-6610.
Tennessee law protects all animals for which no hunting season is proclaimed. Therefore it is illegal to kill a cougar in Tennessee except in the case of imminent threat or if a landowner protecting their property (i.e. an attack on livestock).
Learn more about cougars in Tennessee here.