Locals Report Sightings Of Mountain Lions; Officials Can't Confirm Or Deny
BY O.J. EARLY
Last winter Arville Renner saw something he'll never forget.
"I've never seen anything like it. I sat on the tractor and looked at it. I just sat real still. He just sat there and looked at me. There's been more people who've said they've seen him," he said.
Renner was gazing at what he believed to be an adult mountain lion on his farm in St. James, near the base of Green Mountain.
It's not his only encounter with the cougar. Renner said that he has spotted the big cat several times over the last year.
"He's pretty good size," said Renner. "I would say it weighs 75 pounds. I've seen his tracks back at the pond."
Renner is one of several Greene Countians who believe that mountain lions, called "painters" by Appalachian residents a generation ago, have a presence in the region.
The only problem: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared in 2011 that the eastern cougar is extinct.
The eastern mountain lion roamed from Georgia all the way to New England until the mid-20th century, according to the agency's 2011 review.
Mountain lions were said to be completely gone from East Tennessee and western North Carolina by the 1930s.
"We recognize that many people have seen cougars in the wild within the historical range of the eastern cougar," said Martin Miller, the FWS's Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species.
"However, we believe those cougars are not the eastern cougar subspecies. We found no information to support the existence of the eastern cougar."
FWS has said that the population of the western mountain lion, a larger cousin of the eastern cougar, is growing in the Midwest
The western mountain lion population has been expanding eastward, although it is unclear whether cougars will ever thrive in East Tennessee, FWS has reported.
Blogs, columns and news articles, most recently in the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times, have emerged over the last year related to the possible return of cougars to the region.
James McAfee, Greene County's Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Officer, said he has received some reports from local residents of big-cat sightings in this county.
McAfee said he won't deny what people say they have seen. But he himself has yet to find any evidence of mountain lions in Greene County.
"There's just not been any documented proof of a reproducing population of cougars east of the Mississippi," McAfee said. "But you can never say 'Never.'"
What have the people who made the sightings seen?
One possibility is the western mountain lion, McAfee said.
"The western cougar has a growing population like everything else. It's exploding," he said. "It's not unthinkable that they could have migrated."
Another option: some people raise mountain lions and then illegally release them into the wild. Local residents might have caught a glimpse of a once-privately-owned cougar, he said.
"There have always been people -- loggers, hunters, hikers -- there have always been reports of mountain lions and wolves," McAfee said
"Never say 'Never.' There is a lot of hard-to-reach, hard-to-access territory. Even in the eastern United States with all the development."
He added: "All I can say is, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many, many states have spent money, time and effort trying to verify a wild population of cougars.
"And we've not been able to do that."