by Whit Gibbons

March 5 , 2017

Call them cougars, panthers, pumas, catamounts or mountain lions. All are the same species of big cat, and they may be back. Some are considered different subspecies based on genetic evidence, but for practical purposes they are the same animal, whether in Florida, Canada or southern Chile. Aside from humans, cougars have the largest geographic range of any mammal in the western hemisphere.

More than 1,500 panther sightings were reported last year in Florida. Most were never confirmed, but some were. The Florida panther is a native cat that is unquestionably still roaming the countryside. Documented reports of cougars are common in the western states every year. But if you see one east of the Mississippi River outside of Florida, you will need to prove it to be believed.

As with most large animals that cross paths with humans on a frequent basis, deaths can occur. Horses, cows and dogs are responsible for more human deaths each year than panthers can be indicted for in a century.

According to the highly reliable records reported by R.M. Nowak in “Walker’s Mammals of the World,” documented human deaths from panthers “in the United States and Canada from 1890 up to 1990” totaled nine – less than a person per decade. A few more attacks on humans in western states have been reported in the last quarter century, probably because of the burgeoning human population growth that is expanding into natural habitats formerly occupied by panthers but few people.

The largest eastern U.S. concentration of panthers is currently in Florida. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, fewer than 30 Florida panthers existed in the early 20th century. As of February 2017, at least 120 wild Florida panthers are estimated to be in the region, and that the number could be as high as 230.

To put into perspective the challenge for wildlife biologists trying to determine panther population size, the total home range covered by a single individual in a Texas study was more than 700 square miles in a single year! If Florida panthers move around only half as much (and some radio-telemetered ones have been recorded to do so), counting how many are in southern Florida is a challenging task.

Are panthers back in the eastern states where they once were widespread? Based on their known localities in Florida and on research that has established unequivocally that a panther can travel overland more than 500 miles, an individual could end up in southern Alabama or Georgia. Of course, it would have to avoid being killed on Interstate 10 and any number of other roads along the way.

Also it would probably be a wandering male that would have a lonely existence and produce no offspring, so a panther population would not be forthcoming. A panther was videotaped in Tennessee in recent months and one was killed in New England. But these are outliers, not indicators that the species is back to stay.

Dozens, or more likely hundreds, of reports of panthers are made each year in eastern states where there have been no officially documented occurrences of the species in the past century. Several people have told me of seeing a panther in South Carolina, and I can personally only dispute two of them.

In one case I was shown a road-killed bobcat (a big one). For the other, the evidence was a plaster cast of a foot print, which turned out to be a large dog.

I have a colleague who traveled to a town in Tennessee to confirm the identity of a “yellow mountain lion shot while up in a tree.” That one happened to be a 40-pound house cat, which was impressive in its own right.

If panthers really are back in the eastern states outside Florida, you may see one. Be sure to have your cell phone and camera with you.

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