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Cougar Sightings: Fact Or Fiction?

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We all know that state wildlife agencies fib about the presence of mountain lions.

If you live in a state that used to have a population of cougars and still has a lot of suitable cougar habitat, then you know the story: Your state wildlife agency is swearing up and down that there are no mountain lions in your state. They will claim this in the face of trail cam video, in the face of genetic testing, and quite possibly while a mountain lion is in their face, eating it.

Why do they do this? Well, if they admit that the big cats are present, then the state has to come up with a management plan. It’s like asking a DMV employee to look at the receipt that proves you already paid the ticket. But if you’ve ever wondered what the state wildlife agency’s side of the story (besides “Nuh-uh, and it’s time for my break”) sounds like, here’s the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife to explain why they ignore so many reports.

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In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the eastern cougar extinct. Based on its extensive research, the Service concluded this subspecies of ​big cats had disappeared from the east by the 1930s.

Mountain Lion in the snow, Photo Courtesy of Bill LeaPhoto courtesy of Bill Lea

While mountain lions were once common in Kentucky, research shows the state has not supported a wild population of mountain lions for more than a century. In the landmark 1974 book “Mammals of Kentucky,” authors Roger W. Barbour and Wayne H. Davis noted there were no valid records of mountain lions in the state after 1899.

Currently, the nearest wild population of mountain lions resides in Nebraska, more than 900 miles from Kentucky. A small population of panthers – fewer than 200 animals – also lives in southwestern Florida.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources receives reports each year of mountain lions roaming the state. However, there have been only two confirmations: a female kitten struck by a car in Floyd County in June 1997, and an adult male mountain lion dispatched by a Kentucky Fish and Wildlife conservation officer in Bourbon County on December 15, 2014. DNA testing revealed the kitten had South American ancestry, leading to the conclusion that it was of captive origin. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife biologists rely on physical, verifiable evidence to assess mountain lion sightings in the state.

The increasing number of big cat reports in the state coincides with the return of the bobcat to Kentucky’s landscape. Bobcats, which were considered rare as late as 1974, have increased in range and abundance throughout Kentucky. They are now found in every county in the state. Bobcats may have solid brown coats, which can cause people to misidentify them when glimpsed in low light. In addition, it is no coincidence that reports of mountain lions have increased with the popularity of the internet- which enables the unintentional and intentional sharing of inaccurate information.

 

black and white photograph of a mountain lion running through a forest at night
Radio collared bobcat captured on remote camera,
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

Mountain lion walking through a field
Mountain lion captured on a remote camera in Lincoln County, ​MO
Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation

A good indicator of the presence of mountain lions is the number of animals killed on the road. In Florida, with its small population of panthers, about two dozen of big cats are killed on the road each year. Kentucky’s tally is the one female kitten struck by a vehicle in Floyd County in 1997, and that animal was of captive origin.

The rising popularity of motion-activated trail cameras deployed year-round throughout Kentucky’s woods and fields have yet to produce a confirmed image of a mountain lion in the state. Likewise, more than a quarter million hunters take to the state’s woods and fields each year for deer season and no one has taken a mountain lion. Several years ago, a hunter shot what he said was a mountain lion with his bow. DNA tests on the recovered arrow revealed that he had actually shot a bobcat.

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife biologists are monitoring the expansion of cougar populations from the western U.S. To help protect the public from escaped captive animals, the department has banned the possession of mountain lions as pets since 2005.

Collared Mountain Lion standing over a kill on a hill
Radio collared mountain lion captured on a remote camera in North Dakota.

 

Facts:

    • The scientific name for a mountain lion is Puma concolor, which loosely translates to describe a cat with one color.
Mountain Lion on a hill, Photo Courtesy of Bill LeaPhoto courtesy of Bill Lea

  • The mountain lion has many common names including cougar, puma, catamount, panther, and ghost cat.
  • Adults typically weigh 90-160 pounds with a robust tail that can be one-third as long as the cat’s body.
  • Mountain lions are large cats with short tawny brown fur and a lighter white underbelly.
  • Animals commonly misidentified as mountain lions include coyotes, bobcats, housecats, dogs and white-tailed deer.
  • “Black panthers” exist only as the melanistic (black) phases of the leopard (Panthera pardus) in Africa and Asia, and the jaguar (Panthera onca) of Mexico and Central and South America.
  • The nearest known reproducing populations of western mountain lions are in Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota and Texas.
  • In recent years, young male mountain lions dispersing from their home ranges in search of new territory have been confirmed in Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri.
  • The presence of a lone mountain lion does not mean the area has an established population.

 

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Scott

    January 22, 2023 at 2:28 pm

    I am happy to have seen a mountain lion 18 months ago, here in West Virginia. I don’t see how it matters what kind of mountain lion he or she is.
    I think that it is only fair to us, to know if we might come up upon one of these very big cats while we are out for a walk in the woods. Let me put it this way, what if your wife and daughter find themselves between a mom and kit mountain lion?, will they know that this might happen?, will they have what they need to get themselves out of that precarious situation?, will they make it home?

  2. SquirrelSlayer

    January 5, 2023 at 6:53 am

    I was over at the VFW last night and saw a few Cougars at the bar.

  3. Ken

    January 4, 2023 at 10:51 pm

    Michigan has reports pics and sightings of lions in upper and lower peninsulas, DNR wont accept the findings claim now lion population in michigan

  4. Lawrence Neely

    January 4, 2023 at 5:39 pm

    did not mention New Mexico. New Mexico has 3500 mountain lions. some have even been seen in eastern parts (mountain areas) of Albuquerque

    • DonP

      January 4, 2023 at 11:12 pm

      Is it illegal to shoot something that doesn’t exist?

  5. Bulletcatcher

    January 4, 2023 at 5:14 pm

    Back in the late 70s, I mined coal in Eastern KY. WE had an access road in Butcher Hollow, yep, where Loretta Lynn was born. Everyday we had a visit from a mountain lion, female. And yes, we were positive in our ID. She was at least 90 to 105 pds. We had many bobcats and foxes as well.

  6. Big Al 45

    January 4, 2023 at 3:15 pm

    No denials here in Littleton Colorado, there are several pics on NextDoor from the Ring doorbells in the Ken Caryl and western Littleton proper areas.
    I live next to one of the major drainages going to Chatfield reservoir, and have seen the tracks in the snow and mud along the creek.

  7. Mike

    January 4, 2023 at 1:23 pm

    We get sightings in downtown Des Moines every year, and all over the state of Iowa. DNR tells us just passing through.

  8. Carbine Williams

    January 4, 2023 at 11:27 am

    I constantly see them in both Franklin and Fulton Counties in PA and have pictures to prove it. But the PA Game Commission calls me a liaR

  9. JRM

    January 3, 2023 at 7:18 pm

    Sounds familiar, here in my state even though hunters/ranchers were all reporting wolf sightings in Southern Oregon and Northern California, wildlife officials were adamant they were “Coyotes”..

    Even when large foot prints were found, they were adamant they were abnormally large “Coyote” paw prints!!!

    They have been adamant for decades, now we have dens in Southern Oregon!!!

  10. Raywood Lagneaux

    January 3, 2023 at 1:56 pm

    I heard a couple of years ago the LADWF confirmed cougar scat was found at the Lake Fosse Point park intrance in the Atchafalaya Basin and a few weeks later the same cougar was dispatched in a small comunity near Shreveport, LA by sherriff’s deputies.

  11. Mike Johnson

    January 3, 2023 at 1:52 pm

    I have personally seen a panther three separate times, two different locations, in eastern NC. Two sightings were near my house 30 years apart; in ‘93 and ‘19. One time people had pulled over to watch one walking in the distance. I’ve seen tracks numerous times. I was a professional trapper for decades and a wildlife biologist, so I’m not mistaken.

  12. mljordanusa

    January 3, 2023 at 1:43 pm

    Over 30 years ago a Virginia Park Ranger at Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah state that the Virginia mountain lion was making a comeback. Since that time, there have been numerous reports of sighting, trail camera photos, etc.
    A couple I worked with 20 years ago both claimed to have seen 2 solid black panthers run across I-64 highway in front of them in the area around New Kent, Va. Both reported seeing the exactly the same description.
    Feb of 2022 my wife and I both saw a pair in the Covington, VA area like GreenWolf70 described one tawny and one solid black. Despite claims to the contrary by the BSA site which also disavows their existence.

  13. Jim

    January 3, 2023 at 1:39 pm

    In 2011 a cougar was killed in highway in CT. First one in over 100 years. DNA said he came from Yellowstone NP.
    We had lived in Erie, PA from 1984 till 1997. Many people stated they saw a cougar and most were hunters. They should know. Erie is in a line from Yellowstone NP to CT. so either it walked from Yellowstone, hitchhiker or caught a freight train.

    • GIJOOOE

      January 3, 2023 at 6:54 pm

      Back in ‘89 I was deer hunting near Smethport, PA and witnessed a grown mountain lion stalking an injured buck. The buck was beautiful too, full 12 point that had been wounded by a different hunter earlier in the day. I was posted on top of a ridge line, scoping the valley below me when I heard something walking through the woods behind me. I turned around and there was this gorgeous buck, limping along a game trail but my instincts or guardian angel or whatever yelled inside my head “Don’t shoot it! Don’t shoot it!” over and over until I lowered my rifle and about 30-60 seconds later, here comes this huge(to me, I was a scrawny 14 year old kid at the time) cougar patiently stalking the buck. I’m glad I didn’t kill that deer, for all I know the cougar might’ve attacked me thinking I was trying to take its dinner. I’m not ashamed to say that seeing a cat that big scared the living daylights out of me, I very well could have been his next meal. I completely understand why folks who live in grizzly bear/cougar country don’t go into the woods without a firearm. And of course none of my hunting partners believed me when I told them I saw a mountain lion, they thought I just chickened out when the opportunity to kill a deer was presented to me. But the next day I did kill my first and only deer, and I was the only one out of 10 of us who got one that year.

  14. Rich G.

    January 3, 2023 at 1:31 pm

    The reason I believe that trail cam videos are deliberately ignored here in South Georgia is because if the admission is made that Mountain Lions (Florida Panther)do exist in Charlton County then that land would not be allowed to be timbered as it would be habitat encroachment. Too many people with big money are NOT going to let that happen.

  15. GreenWolf70

    January 3, 2023 at 1:24 pm

    I live on Keel Mountain in north Alabama. We have 2 mountain lions living on this mountain. One is the normal tawny color (that one I have personally seen) and the other is solid black (as seen on a trail cam photo). I have been shown several times trail cam video of these 2 cats. Neither cat bothers local pets or live stock that I can tell, and they seem to stick around the local deer and avoid residential areas. I can also tell you that no song dogs sing on this mountain. The towns at the bottom of the mountain are just about over run with coyotes. We often see coyotes on the edges of the mountain and occasionally they will foray further in, but the cats either drive them off, or take them out. I have lived on this mountain since 2004 and I have never heard a coyote sing up here. I have heard them singing at night in the local towns at the bottom of the mountain, but never on this mountain. As long as the cats keep the coyotes off the mountain, I won’t bother them, nor will I let anyone else bother them.

  16. Ken Heinemann

    January 3, 2023 at 1:03 pm

    There are no Bobcats in Hawaii. You ststed they are found in all states. Hawaii is a state

    • Marc Haughaboo

      January 4, 2023 at 2:19 pm

      Alaska is a state too, and we don’t have bobcats either.

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