Prior to 2015, cougars were not thought to be in the state since the early 1900s, when they were extirpated from the state due to over-hunting and habitat loss, according to the TWRA. There were zero confirmed cougar sightings in Tennessee between 1900-2015.
The nine sightings have taken place in West and Middle Tennessee. Specifically, cougar sightings have been confirmed in Obion, Carroll, Humphreys and Wayne counties. The most recent sighting was on Sept. 4, 2016, in Wayne County.
According to officials with the TWRA, many reported sightings have not been verified, as the photos were deemed to be doctored or it was simply an eyewitness account.
For a sighting to be verified, there must either be physical evidence, such as hair from the animal that can be tested, or photo or video that is found to not be tampered. Scat samples or kill sites are also useful in confirming a cougar sighting.
With the first confirmed sighting in Obion County, officials were sent a photo of the cougar, and then visited the site to take separate photos from the same vantage point. They also took photos of other animals to get a better idea of the size of the cougar.
In other unconfirmed sightings, photos have not been clear enough to confirm that the animal in question was a cougar. In previous instances, officials stated that it could have been a dog or another similarly sized animal.
In a separate confirmed sighting, a hunter found hairs from a cougar and submitted them to the TWRA to be tested.
According to the TWRA’s website, tn.gov/twra, cougars can roam for hundreds of miles within their home range.
Officials believe cougars may be migrating toward Tennessee, and that within the next couple of decades, the cougar population could grow.
Still, cougars are considered a protected species in Tennessee. Killing a cougar, unless under immediate threat, is illegal.
According to the TWRA’s website, cougars could help thin an overpopulation of deer in Tennessee. The website states that if a person encounters a cougar, they should “make yourself threatening by standing tall, waving your arms, throwing objects and yelling.”
People should not turn their back to a cougar and run, but should back away slowly towards a shelter like a car or house. Groups of people should stick together. If the animal attacks, a person should fight back rather than play dead.
TWRA officials said that it is exceedingly unlikely to encounter a cougar, even as their population grows, and less likely for a person to be killed by one.
Between 1890-1990, only 10 people in total were killed due to cougar attacks, according to a report from the Wildlife Society Bulletin. According to the TWRA, each year 26 deaths are due to dog attacks, three from bear attacks, 12 from rattlesnake bits, 40 from bee stings and 90 from lightning strike.
While the TWRA continues to monitor cougar activity in the state, it has no plans to stock or otherwise physically encourage the establishment of a cougar population.