mountain lions, cougars, eastern cougars, wildlife, extinct species, extinct subspecies, tennessee, kentucky, virgina, blue ridge mountains, fish and wildlife service

Mountain lions once roamed the continent from west to east, but the spread of human communities have led to a massive reduction in the number of big cat populations in the east. In fact, the only recognized population of mountain lions east of the Mississippi River are southern Florida panthers and DNA testing has confirmed that population is not migrating north. Declining numbers of mountain lions over the past 100 years led wildlife officials in other Eastern states to declare them extinct. However, the growing number of sightings in Tennessee since September 2015 has environmentalists arguing that it’s time to reconsider the species’ status, and work to conserve their habitat to encourage further population increases. So far, wildlife officials do not seem eager to take action.

Related: LA lawmakers take steps to create wildlife corridor to protect big cats

mountain lions, cougars, eastern cougars, wildlife, extinct species, extinct subspecies, tennessee, kentucky, virgina, blue ridge mountains, fish and wildlife service

Are they really mountain lions?

A mountain lion is a wild cat ranging from two to three feet tall, with females weighing up to 120lbs and males up to 200lbs, making it the fourth largest cat in the world. They are also known as cougars, panthers, pumas, or catamounts—all are the same animal. While bobcats are considerably smaller (the largest among them are under 20lbs), their similar coloring can lead to cases of mistaken identity, especially from a great distance. What’s more, mountain lion kittens and young bobcats are very difficult to tell apart. Many reports of mountain lion sightings are immediately dismissed as a case of mistaken identity and some, like this alleged sighting of a dead mountain lion on a highway cutting through North Carolina’s stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Wildlife officials claim no knowledge of the carcass, but there are any number of alternate explanations, such as scavengers dragging it off the road or a passerby collecting it.

mountain lions, cougars, eastern cougars, wildlife, extinct species, extinct subspecies, tennessee, kentucky, virgina, blue ridge mountains, fish and wildlife service

The scientific evidence

Tennessee wildlife officials admit cougars roam the mountains in that state, after the first cougar in 100 years was photographed there. Despite the mounting number of sightings, videos, and captures over the past year, the state does not recognize the big cats as a permanent residents, because of the lack of evidence of reproducing females. A study from University of Minnesota reviewed 18 years of cougar sightings in an effort to understand the big cats’ activity. The study argues that the increased population in Tenn. suggests that cougars are expanding their Midwest territory in search of adequate habitat to reproduce. Some say the big cats could reestablish their populations in the Blue Ridge Mountains within 25 to 50 years.

One of the early sightings caught on video (above) was of this female mountain lion, who was subsequently captured in Nov. 2015 in Olbion County, Tenn. DNA testing revealed the cougar is not related to known populations of panthers in southern Florida, and the notion that the big cats have traveled from western states has been dismissed due to common sense. The remaining logical conclusion points to a slow resurgence of the eastern cougars that once lived all over the Eastern mountains.

mountain lions, cougars, eastern cougars, wildlife, extinct species, extinct subspecies, tennessee, kentucky, virgina, blue ridge mountains, fish and wildlife service

Alleged mountain lion attack

A man injured while hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail near Humpback Rock in Virginia was initially reported as the victim of a mountain lion attack on Jul. 1 of this year. At that time, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, suggested that was unlikely and issued a statement recalling that “since 1970, 121 sightings have been identified as possible mountain lions, but have not been officially confirmed. Most sightings occur in Shenandoah National Park and in Bedford, Amherst and Nelson County region.” The victim’s mother, who had called 911 on his behalf, later revealed that a miscommunication led her to identify the wrong animal. She said that her son was actually attacked by a bobcat, which he had referred to as a “big cat.” She made an assumption when she told the 911 operator it was a mountain lion. This clarifying piece of information fuels the doubt about the true resurgence of the eastern cougar.

mountain lions, cougars, eastern cougars, wildlife, extinct species, extinct subspecies, tennessee, kentucky, virgina, blue ridge mountains, fish and wildlife service

What’s next for the eastern cougar?

Environmental conservation groups are urging wildlife officials to review the status of mountain lions across several states, including Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, and little progress has been made. The federal Fish & Wildlife Service removed the eastern cougar from the Endangered Species List last year, and reclassified them as an extinct subspecies after a four-year review. Prior to that decision, the Mountain Lion Foundation sponsored a petition to urge the opposite, suggesting FWS work to support the eastern cougar’s repopulation of the Blue Ridge Mountains instead. Just months after the federal agency declared the big cats extinct, the animals began appearing in the Tennessee mountains, leading to a renewed effort to protect the eastern cougar. MLF and other conservation groups argue that genetic testing proves all mountain lions are the same subspecies, so the FWS decision to declare them extinct in the Eastern states is not only irresponsible but unethical.

Will it take federal wildlife officials another four years to recognize that eastern cougars are trying to make a comeback in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or will their tracks once again fade into oblivion?

Lead image via Wikipedia, additional images via TN Fish & Wildlife, Wikipedia (1, 2, 3), and Eastern Cougar Foundation