Tennessee wildlife officials have now confirmed at least three cougar sightings in the state. One of the three encounters has been confirmed to have been a female, an indication that it is at least possible that a breeding population could establish itself in Tennessee. The increased sightings lead Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials to get more serious about efforts to review reports, and respond to the many public inquiries, forming a special task force called the "TWRA Cougar Response Committee."
It was early October when TWRA biologists first confirmed that a trail cam photo of a cougar was indeed taken in Obion County, in the far Northwest corner of the state. That was the first confirmation of a cougar, also called mountain lions or pumas, in Tennessee in more than 100 years. Wildlife biologists were not overly surprised, and suspected it was a young male cougar. Young males of all large predators must often range hundreds of miles in search of their own territories as they mature.
Another confirmed sighting came just before Thanksgiving, when another hunter discovered remarkably clear video (below) on his trail camera in Humphreys County, bordering Kentucky Lake west of Nashville.
In another sighting, a hunter came to TWRA to report that he had shot a cougar with a bow & arrow in Carroll County while hunting, according to TWRA Region II spokesperson Doug Markham.
The hunter said he did not believe that he mortally wounded the animal, but he did produce a bloody arrow. TWRA officials sent the blood samples off for DNA testing. The results recently came in, revealing that it was cougar blood... and what's more, it was a female.
Joy Sweaney is the statewide TWRA Wildlife Biologist, specializing in bears and other large carnivores. Interviewed in October following the first cougar sighting, Sweaney said, "I don't think [this] is a big deal. They have a very large range, so it's possible he's just roaming looking for his [new] territory. Until we can confirm females [with cubs], we can't consider it as an 'established' population."
The confirmation of a female did not include cubs, but it is more significant than a young male cougar. DNA testing can also determine a general "point of origin." Markham said the tests on the bloody arrow indicated it was a cougar that originated all the way from South Dakota, more than 1,200 miles away.
Such feats are not unheard of. In 2011 the respected magazine "Scientific American" reported on a cougar, also originating from South Dakota, that was killed in Connecticut.
Those amazing long treks don't necessarily mean the cougars made their trips in one fell swoop. They actually could have been working their way East over several years. While it is still possible that all three confirmed Tennessee sightings were of the same cougar, the mounting evidence, along with a number of other unconfirmed sightings, indicate the big cats are moving in our direction.
Again, not a surprise for some wildlife managers.
Alan Peterson, the TWRA Regional manager in West Tennessee said in October, "They're coming. It's just a question of how long it's going to take. It could be decades before there is an established population."
TWRA officials say cougars are classified as a protected species which cannot be hunted or killed until a hunting or trapping season is established by the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission, the governing body of the TWRA.
Markham said the bowhunter who shot the cougar reported the incident himself to TWRA officials. The specific circumstances haven't been revealed. While he believes charges in this case are unlikely, Markham said, "The case has been turned over to a District Attorney's office to determine whether or not he'll be prosecuted."
Is the presence of cougars in Tennessee a good thing or a bad thing?
Most professional wildlife managers consider it a good thing, saying that any habitat that includes apex predators indicates we're doing a good job protecting and managing our environment, and wildlife resources.
"We're always happy to have wildlife in our state that was here historically, but we understand there could be concerns about it," said Markham.
Indeed, people who have been attacked (in some cases killed), by cougars might obviously be concerned.
According to National Geographic, there is an average of four attacks and one human fatality each year in the U.S. and Canada.
Markham said that cougars are extremely shy and very unlikely to be aggressive toward humans. There have been numerous cougar sightings in Missouri in recent years. That state created a "Mountain Lion Response Team" in 1996. They also created a special web page to inform the public about the big cats. That page offers very specific information on cougar behavior, and how people should respond if they see one. Markham said TWRA will likely create a similar web page soon.