The Big News on Big Cats

“Tennessee Officials Confirm First Sighting of Mountain Lion in 100 Years”

(The cat pictured is a lynx, as close as I could come with my own photos)

It was a riveting headline that caught my attention yesterday morning on my Facebook feed. Fortunately, though, I’m in the habit of checking dates on anything billed as news and soon realized that this was from 2015, not exactly in the “breaking news” category. I pay a lot of attention to the eastward migration of the puma, however, so the news was welcome, whatever the date.

I even take a little time for big cats in “The Dying Fish,” speculating, as so many others do, on their presence in the state of Pennsylvania. My best guess is that there are, very rarely, escapees from exotic keepers but also that, once in a great while, a catamount ambles through the Keystone State on a long walk from the Dakotas to the Atlantic Ocean. Improbable? Well, let me offer a little background, as mountain lions have become an area of particular interest to me in recent years. They’re of interest to me because they’re a fine evidence of quality habitat recurring in the east – they have huge areas of refuge that they wouldn’t have had fifty years ago. They can come back now.

Mountain lions were generally wiped out in the east before 1900. They were scarce, in fact, by 1800. They’ve lived on only as rumors; whispers of wild, cagey predators that haunt unfrequented places and they live on, mostly in the south in names like: “Painter Hollow”, “Painter Creek” or “Painter Mountain,” “Painter” being one of many common early nicknames for the giant cats. During the 20th century, the nearest breeding population to the east coast could be found in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Then, in the 1990’s, their population grew and the cats needed to roam again.

The cats that head east are, uniformly so far, young males in search of new ranges, following available forage and uncultivated lands. Again, this would have hardly been possible half a century ago but with the expansion of eastern forests, the cats have quiet, shady corridors to roam through at will. Think of all the deer embedded in our woods and suburbs. How compelling must this culinary opportunity be to the hungry western travelers?

So, since 2000 we’ve witnessed confirmed sightings in almost every eastern state. State conservation departments are often slow to acknowledge that, yes, cougars are here or at least have passed through but Tennessee now joins the expanding list of “cougar confirmed” states that include:

  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana
  • Wisconsin
  • Illinois
  • Michigan
  • Indiana
  • Georgia
  • Connecticut
  • New York

And why are they back (besides resurgent forest and deer)? Game cams! The vast majority of sightings can be attributed to this rising technology. Makes you wonder if they cats haven’t been around all along.

From the perspective of libertarian ecology, it’s also exciting, as the forests have come back without central planning and the cats are following, with no government directives to bring them back. Curiously, state fish and wildlife agencies in the states involved are formulating plans to appropriately “manage” these top-level predators. In keeping with the success rate of other government programs, I suspect this might be a lot like herding cats.

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