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Kammermeyer: Is there really a lion roaming in North Hall?

POSTED: June 26, 2009 12:51 a.m.

Have you seen any panthers, pumas, painters, cougars or mountain lions lately?

Reported sightings of a big predator in the cat family have been quite common recently in North Hall.

I answered/investigated many of these reports in a 30-year career as a Wildlife Biologist at the DNR office in Gainesville. We never found a shred of evidence of the existence of any big wild cats in Northeastern Georgia, nor has any been found in any other part of Georgia. No tracks, no droppings, no hair, nothing. Livestock or deer carcasses always turned out to be dogs, coyotes or in rare instances, bobcats.

The last real evidence, a plaster cast of a mountain lion track taken near Berry College near Rome, was submitted to the Smithsonian Institute and verified by them back in the mid-1970’s.

Obviously, as with the North Hall lion, this could have been a tame cat released or escaped from captivity.

That was about 35 years ago and there’s been nothing since.

There are bobcats in Northeast Georgia, maybe a very few in North Hall, but in general it is too civilized for them here. The two-foot tall bobcat is gray to reddish brown with irregular black spots, three-feet long including a six-inch long tail and reaches a maximum size of about 30 pounds. This is a far cry from a 100-150 pound tan or tawny unspotted mountain lion that is at least six-feet long not including a 2.5-foot long curved tail with a black tip.

By the way, panthers, pumas, painters, cougars and mountain lions are five names for exactly the same big cat that used to live here over 100 years ago but became extinct due to persecution from the early settlers protecting their livestock.

The nearest big wild cats now are the Florida panthers in South Florida and these are extremely rare with only 50 or fewer left in the wild.

About 10 years ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Game decided to stock a few sterile Western Cougars in North Florida complete with radio collars. It was a pilot program to see if they could eventually stock Florida panthers and extend their range. The experiment failed as the big cats got in all kinds of trouble killing livestock, getting run over on the highways and generally creating great conflict with people even in remote areas of south Georgia.

One of these big cats moved over 100 miles north up the Savannah River to just short of Augusta. They tracked his radio signal, treed him, shot him with tranquilizer and brought him back to Florida. Eventually, they ended up catching all of the remaining cats and abandoning the total effort.

In other words, they picked up their marbles and went home. It turned out to be a total waste of time and taxpayers money.

It was the same kind of waste of money and time that occurred more recently with the red wolf stocking in Cades Cove, Tn. What was left of them got picked up by the Feds and the program quietly abandoned.

By the way, none of these wolves ever moved into North Georgia.

Red wolves were native here but were exterminated over 100 years ago just like the panthers. However, both of these abandoned projects did serve to generate lots of reports in Northeast Georgia.

Was there any validity to these reports? Nope, all of the big cats and wolves wore radio collars, and none ever showed up here.

So, when people call and report a panther or a wolf, what are they really seeing?

I don’t know but it could be coyotes (plenty of them around), dogs, otters, house cats, bobcats or bears.

A wolf or coyote mis-identification is understandable but wolves are over 100 pounds and coyotes max out at 40 pounds.

They are a similar grizzled gray, brown and white coloration with pointed ears; long, bushy tails and long, straight legs. The panther mis-identification riddle is much less clear cut especially if the panther report indicates a black panther.

There is no black color phase of panther anywhere in the entire United States and never has been.

Closest thing to it is a rare black color phase of the South American jaguar. There are a few in Central America but none in the U.S. except in zoos.

Kent Kammermeyer is an outdoors writer. His column appears monthly.



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