For the first time in over a century, Tennessee officials say that mountain lions may be returning to the state. In October, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) confirmed that a hunter in Obion County discovered pictures of a mountain lion on his trail camera. The agency determined that photo was legitimate, making it the first cougar sighting in the state in over 100 years.
Other counties have also reported sightings. The most recent confirmed discovery of a mountain lion came from Humphreys County, near the center of the state and about 30 miles from Nashville. According to WSMV, Austin Burton found footage of the animal while checking up on his trail cam two days after Thanksgiving. The cougar appeared to be investigating a deer scrape.
You can see that video below:
“It was actually the first video on the card. I was pretty much speechless,” he said. “They will be the top predator in the woods, outside of man.”
Another sighting was reported in Carrol County. Currently the TWRA does not have enough information to give an estimate on how many cougars are living in the state, or how long they will stay. Unless there is a significant breeding population, the cougars will likely return to where they came from.
Wandering mountain lions have also been spotted in Louisiana and Arkansas, affirming the suspicions of some biologists that the animals are moving east. Researchers at the University of Minnesota and Southern Illinois University Carbondale recently published a study that found increased sightings of the big cats in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Kansas. According to researchers, the species may recolonize Midwestern states in as little as 25 years.
Tennessee is one of the possible locations for mountain lions to set up a population, especially since the state has a lot of habitat ideally suited to the species.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t watch my back a little more knowing that thing’s been there in the last couple weeks,” Blake Spencer, the hunter who found footage of a cougar on his trail cam back in October, told The Jackson Sun. “But it’s pretty rare for a cougar to attack a human.”
State biologists agreed and added that it was illegal to kill a mountain lion unless it was in self-defense.
“Like all wildlife species in Tennessee, 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,” the agency stated in a press release.
The TWRA will be investigating to see whether the lions are merely transient males ranging far from home, or a mixed-gendered group ready to start a population.
“I don’t know how long it will take them, but I do think they will continue to expand,” said TWRA spokesperson Doug Markham. “We’re watching them and seeing what they’re doing, and I’m sure we’ll have something up on our website so you can see what’s going on with them.”