First ‘Confirmed’ Cougar Sighting in Tennessee

cougar photo
This photo of a cougar was captured on a game trail camera in Obion County, Sept. 20, by Blake Spencer, a 19-year-old sophomore wildlife and fisheries biology major at UT Martin. (Photo: Contributed by TWRA/Blake Spencer)

Wildlife enthusiasts across the State of Tennessee are buzzing with news of the state’s first “confirmed” cougar sighting in modern history.

Now I know that every person reading this has a brother, sister, cousin, mother, father or friend who has “personally seen a cougar.”  However professional biologists with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency have never had enough evidence to officially “confirm” such a sighting, until now.

However the absolute authority on such sightings – Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists – have never, ever documented or confirmed such sightings, until now.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that [mountain lion] was in Obion County on Sept. 20,” according to TWRA Region I Manager Alan Peterson.

Peterson made that bold statement after having personally analyzed a photograph from a game camera provided by Blake Spencer, a 19-year-old sophomore wildlife and fisheries biology major at UT Martin.

Game cameras are used extensively by deer hunters these days. They are generally strapped to a tree, overlooking game trails or feeding areas. The cameras are activated by motion sensors. Anytime an animal walks in front of it, it snaps a photo. That’s how Spencer got the photo above.

However the cameras are only checked periodically, and by the time Spencer pulled the SD card on his camera, any potential physical evidence of the mountain lion, such as tracks, had been washed away by rain.

TWRA has been beseiged with alleged game camera photos of mountain lions for years and have becoming quite adepted at discerning fact from fiction.

Peterson said they actually took photos of their own from the exact same location to verify the location and perspective.

cougar deer
TWRA superimposed two photos from the same camera, comparing size/perspective of a deer … proving the cat captured on camera was not a housecat. (Photo: Contributed by TWRA/Blake Spencer)

“Everything matched up,” he said. “The guy gave us his SD card. We superimposed photographs of deer from the exact same camera. This animal was as long as a deer, which proved it wasn’t a housecat. We had it analyzed and experts tell us it’s not photoshopped.”

Read much more on that photograph analysis here.

Stephanne Dennis, a consultant for TWRA and other wildlife agencies, was one of the people who reviewed the original photograph.

“I’ve authenticated thousands of game photos,” said Dennis. “I’ve looked at this one and I believe it’s the real thing.”

Joy Sweaney, statewide TWRA Wildlife Biologist, specializing in bears and other large carnivores, said the one thing that is impossible to determine is whether the mountain lion is wild, or an escaped captive mountain lion. Sweaney does say however, that biologists in Missouri have confirmed more than 50 cougar sightings since 1994.

“A lot of those sighting have been in Southeast Missouri, just across the Mississippi River from where this photo was taken,” said Sweaney.

So does this mean we now have an “established” population of mountain lions in Tennessee?

“Absolutely not,” said Sweaney. “Even with all the confirmed sightings they’ve had, Missouri biologists don’t believe they have an ‘established’ population.

Virtually all of their sightings have been young, transient male cougars. All young male carnivores — bears and cougars — have to roam over huge areas to find their own “home range” after their mothers run them off. That’s why bears have been known to show up inside the city limits of Chattanooga and other urban areas.

“I don’t think [this] is a big deal,” said Sweaney. “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.”

Peterson said, “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 also emphasizes, “Any natural range expansion of cougars into Tennessee will be animals that are protected by law. The TWRA has never opened a hunting season on them. Therefore it would be illegal to kill a cougar in Tennessee.”

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