The discovery that a cougar killed last year in Troup County came from a population of Florida panthers begs a question that biologists hear all the time:
Are lions loose in Georgia?
State and federal biologists are skeptical. Big cats, they say, vanished from Southeastern forests decades ago, driven out by that encroaching species, Homo sapiens.
But others are convinced that panthers are among us. The big cats, they say, are the blur on the darkened roadway, the rustle in grassy pastures, that soft-walking something in woodland shadows.
That’s what a deer hunter in Troup County saw Nov. 16. He was sitting in a tree stand, waiting for a buck to come by, when something unexpected padded into the clearing: Puma concolor, an American mountain lion. He killed it.
The unnamed hunter, whom officials are not prosecuting for shooting the protected animal, contacted the regional offices of the state Department of Natural Resources in Fort Valley. Biologist Charlie Killmaster remembers the moment.
“I got a page [on the cellphone], ‘Reference cougar, Troup County,’ ” recalled Killmaster. “I thought, ‘Aw, it’s another one of those.’ ”
“Those,” as in erroneous sightings, phoned in by nervous hikers or hunters. Killmaster and every other DNR biologist in the state had taken those calls before. Probably a big dog, Killmaster thought.
But you cannot dispute 140 pounds of furry evidence. What the hunter showed law enforcement officers was a stunning creature — 88 inches from nose to tail, tawny and muscled, about 4 years old, beautiful.
The surprised officers gave the carcass to Killmaster, who took it to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens. Veterinarians there performed a necropsy that led to a surprising conclusion, announced last week.
The male panther’s genetic makeup showed it had come from Florida panthers. A subspecies of the American mountain lion, the panthers are endangered and protected by state and federal laws. An estimated 100 to 120 live in South Florida, about 600 miles south of Troup County. “That’s as the crow flies,” said Killmaster.
As the panther walks, it’s closer to 650 miles. To reach the Georgia county, about 75 miles southwest of Atlanta, the panther may have followed river corridors north, looking for terrain he didn’t have to share with other male lions.
Biologists, a skeptical lot, note that lions rarely travel so far — but they can. The record trek for an American cougar, set several years go by a restless youngster out west, is 663 miles.
The Troup County wanderer may have gotten tired of sharing space with his peers and lit out for unknown territory, suggested Paul Souza, a South Florida field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“While it’s unusual for panthers to be seen that far north,” he said, “it is not impossible for a young male to travel so far.”
And perhaps they have traveled farther than that.
‘Know what I saw’
Daylight was an hour away on a late-May morning when Chad Nichols of Braselton drove his ’95 Buick Riviera onto the roadway. The headlights illuminated two lanes reaching into the darkness. Nichols settled in for his commute to Kennesaw, where he supervises sales of sports nutritional supplements.
The creature came from the right. It bounded into the glare of the Buick’s headlights and seemed to kick its rear legs. It was dark brown, long, soon gone with a flick of its tail.
“I know what I saw,” said Nichols, 36. “There is no doubt in my mind.”
A sheep? That’s what he first thought. But sheep aren’t that big.
Dog? Not a chance.
Bobcat? An avid hunter, Nichols knows one when he sees one.
“It was a cat,” he said. “A big cat.”
Word got around. A lady shopping at the nearby BP told Nichols’ neighbor that something had been foraging in her trash — a cat, she suspected. Nichols posted a notice on a Braselton community blog, warning folks that a cougar might be prowling the woods near their homes.
DNR biologist Scott Frazier, who works in the department’s Gainesville regional offices, began getting calls: Something ran across the road; something gutted a horse.
The department set roadside traps; they remained empty. Specialists looked at the dead horse; it appeared to have died, then was ravaged by something — wild dogs, perhaps.
Frazier and others took calls, investigated ... and still are waiting for conclusive proof that a cougar stalks where children play and guys grill off their decks in the hills 50 miles northeast of Atlanta. Paw prints, cat droppings: That would convince him.
People who don’t need convincing note that federal officials in the late 1980s introduced a strain of Texas panthers to the woodlands close to Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. The cats adapted well during the experiment, which concluded when officials removed the panthers in the early 1990s.
But did they get them all?
Frazier has been hearing reports about lions and other unlikely creatures since coming to DNR’s Gainesville office four years ago.
Some are even legitimate.
A few years ago, someone called and said they had an alligator in their pond. Frazier, who is trained in these things, investigated and announced: A gator was in the pond.
But a cougar?
“I would say it’s possible,” he said. “But it’s not probable.”