There is no arguing that the southern Smoky Mountains are home to an array of wildlife. The National Park Service (NPS) calls the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) “the most biodiverse park in the National Park system,” with a climate that classifies the region as a temperate rainforest. In the park, you can expect to see white-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkey and…mountain lions?
Also called panther, painter, puma, cougar and catamount, if you live in the area, you may have heard someone say they have seen a mountain lion in or near the park. In fact, I put the call out on Facebook for stories of mountain lion sightings and received over 100 responses from people who claim to have seen one or know someone who has.
Scrolling through the thread, you can read accounts of seeing mountain lions running out into the road, memories of sightings from childhood and other anecdotes.
According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), The GSMNP was home to mountain lions over 100 years ago, but a population of them hasn’t lived here since the early 1900s. They were eradicated from the area as a result of overhunting and habitat loss. However, TWRA says the mountain lion may be making a comeback, with several confirmed sightings in West Tennessee.
If the TWRA says that mountain lions are not yet populating East Tennessee, then what are people seeing? I checked in with Maryville College (MC) Biology Professor, Dr. Unger. “My suspicion is most of the sightings are sightings of bobcat…” he said during our meeting. “I’m not trying to quell the desire…if there is anyone who would like to see mountain lions in the Smokies, it’s me. It’s just not reality yet.”
Dr. Unger explained that while there have been a few confirmed sightings of mountain lions in the GSMNP, he doesn’t believe there is a breeding population. Biologists would look for evidence such as scat, marked trees, a pattern of mountain lions moving through their territory, evidence of kills or sightings on trail cams. You would also see them on roads or walking trails as they travel through their areas.
Looking at the reports from NPS and TRWA, it’s easy to think that mountain lions aren’t here in large numbers, but the number of people who are sure they’ve seen them is significant. One comment from the Facebook thread reads, “My husband and I had a mountain lion run out in front of our car on Denton Hayes road in six mile probably a year ago or less. Thought it was a dog until I saw its tail whipping back forth in the air and then looked up a video to verify and it was the exact same movements.”
Mike Boudreau, Jr., who worked as a security officer for Maryville College from 2003-= to 2015, sat down to speak with me about his experience. Boudreau says that one night, as he was walking back towards campus in the woods, he saw a mountain lion sitting in a nearby tree. When I asked him if it was possible that what he saw was a bobcat, he said he was sure it was a mountain lion.
Whether you believe that a population of mountain lions are hiding in the dark shadows of the mountains or that they are not yet breeding in the area, one thing it seems most people can agree on is a love for the area and a desire to see these elusive cats.
Unger says, “One concern that I think should be raised to those that want to see their Smokies remain wild and maybe become wilder is, right now, Blount County is being chewed apart by development, and previously, it would have been a lot easier for a mountain lion to make its way across Blount County and get into the Smokies. Now, with the expansion of highways, the development that’s going on…we are building up greater barriers to these big animals moving back east because we are chopping up the habitat.”
The solution is complex and takes time. Things like under/overpasses that would allow wildlife to safely cross interstates and thoughtful development are just a few things that would help mountain lions travel to the area.
So, if you think you see a mountain lion, what characteristics should you look for? First, look at the size; mountain lions are much larger than bobcats, weighing anywhere between 80 to 180 lbs. Secondly, look for a long tail, between two to three feet. Their coats have an even, tawny color, and they have long, lean bodies. Most importantly, snap a picture, and report it to TWRA!