Before European settlement, mountain lions once occurred throughout Tennessee, and moved between Tennessee and neighboring states. Ideal habitat would have occurred in the forests, hills, and along the timbered streams, but mountain lions could have persisted anywhere there was ample prey.
Direct persecution, conversion of wildlands to agriculture and human development, roads and highways, and other forms of habitat loss all contributed to the decline and ultimate extirpation of mountain lions in Tennessee.
Genetic research indicates that the common ancestor of today's Leopardus, Lynx, Puma, Prionailurus, and Felis lineages migrated across the Bering land bridge into the Americas approximately 8 to 8.5 million years ago.
What we know as a cougar today became recognizable as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago, and inhabited nearly all of the Americas for hundreds of thousands of years, alongside the giant sloth, the mammoth, the dire wolf and the sabre-toothed lion.
During the Pleistocene ice ages, conditions appear to have become too cold for cougar populations to survive, and paleotologists believe that at the end of the last ice age, the big cats repopulated North America from a southern refugium. Cougars have inhabited Tennessee, alongside humans, for more than 40,000 years.
Native people memorialized the cougar in rock carvings, totems, in story and in song. As European settlement expanded in the 1840's, cougar persecution and riding the landscape of dangerous wildlife became more common.
As European settlers began to settle what would become the United States in earnest, they established farms, ranches, and towns, complete with various livestock. With the pigs, sheep, horses, cattle, and goats came conflict with the native wildlife. In 1895, the U. S. Department of Agriculture established Wildlife Services, whose mandate was rodent control and predator eradication. The idea that predators were vermin who should be removed from the landscape was echoed by bounty programs supported by many states. Mountain lions, wolves, bears, and bobcats were poisoned, shot, trapped, or otherwise killed by the thousands.
In addition to heavy mountain lion persecution in the name of livestock protection, expanding markets for fur further reduced mountain lion numbers. In the 1600s, the fur trade in the Americas became globalized and hides obtained from Native Americans were shipped to Europe where they were in high demand. Europeans imported goods useful to Indians and were able to trade for the furs in exchange. Starting in 1602, the Company of New France was given a royal charter and exclusive trading rights from Florida to the Arctic.
By the 1850s, these trapping efforts made mountain lions increasingly rare in the eastern two thirds of the continent. Mountain lions were functionally extinct in the Midwest by 1860, the mid-Atlantic states by 1882, in the south coastal states by 1886, in central Appalachia by 1900, and in New England by 1906. Unfortunately, mountain lions in Tennessee were subject to the same forces and did not fare any better and were locally extinct by 1900.
Though cougars have been functionally extinct for over a century, the USFWS continues to receive reports of sightings. They have not been able to confirm any of these cats were the eastern cougar subspecies, rather they believe these individuals have been released pets or lions dispersing from the western population.
With the appropriate protections to the species and their habitat, perhaps we could recover our lost mountain lions, and they could once again wander the land in which they formerly lived.
Gainer (1973) believes they had been extirpated from the state by 1900. However, according to Linzey (2008, p. 167), Tom Sparks claimed he was attacked by a lion in 1920 while herding sheep on Spence Field, on the Blount County (TN)-Swain County (NC) county line (at the western end of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Presumably the lion was killed near the present site of Fontana Village several months later. Kellogg (1939) states that a lion was killed in Holston Mountains, Johnson County (in Cherokee National Forest in the NW part of the state) in 1929.
In the fall of 1941, Glen Branam, Park Dispatcher for The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told Culbertson (1977, p. 52), that he and a neighbor treed two 20-lb kittens near Hillis Creek in the Greenbrier area and killed them. Culbertson said Branam gave a good description of the kittens. Downing (1984) said, "Brother doubtful."
Ca. December 1971. A 150-lb male was killed by Mr. Buckner, a deer hunter, near Pikeville, Bledsoe County. [Downing (1984) says it was north of Crossville.] The specimen was mounted, and a photograph was published in the Winchester, TN Herald Chronicle (page 11-A, 9 December 1971) (Nowak 1976, p. 133). Buckner lived in Decherd, TN. Downing said that the mount has no Florida panther pelage characteristics, and that the toenails were not visible on four main toes, so it may have been a declawed former captive. The skull is in the mount, but Buckner would not allow it to be measured.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: In response to numerous reported sightings in the 1970s and before, the Great Smoky Mountains National [sic] Association funded a survey of mountain lion reports and a search for evidence by Nicole Culbertson (1977). She collected accounts of more than 50 sightings and their presumed tracks, but saw no evidence herself and found none preserved by others. She went on to do regression analyses, correlated locations of sightings to areas in the park where deer are most abundant, and noted that low income people--some of whose families had been moved from the park against their will--poached deer and looked on mountain lions--if any--as unwelcome competitors.
In an article available online, Culbertson and Bratton (1977) stated: "In the past two years, lion tracks have been identified by the park wildlife biologist, as well as by rangers and local residents. The tracks provide further evidence that the secretive panther really roams the park." Until around 1980, when Chris Belden described how to distinguish lion (Florida panther) tracks from dog tracks, few people except those with considerable field experience with known lions could distinguish them. Only tracks that have been seen in the field or preserved as casts or photographs with a ruler or object of known size and verified by a knowledgeable person can be considered to be lion.
Dr. Donald Linzey, a mammalogist and wildlife conservation officer at Virginia Tech, has been looking for evidence of lions in the national park for about 40 years (Anon. 2016). If he finds confirming evidence, his discovery most likely will be announced by the media.