AUBURN, Ala. – We have seen them in movies and on the internet, but can we find mountain lions in Alabama? Commonly found in western parts of the United States, scientists say their range is expanding. The most recent confirmed sighting nearest to Alabama happened September 2016 in Wayne County Tennessee. This county borders the north-western part of Alabama. Does this mean there could be mountain lions in Alabama? Some seem to think so; others are skeptical.
In 2015, a game camera photo amped up the conversation about mountain lions in Alabama. Theories and other assertions from the public quickly began to spread as the photo grew in popularity. So, is it possible for them to live in Alabama? Alabama Extension professionals try to answer this burning question.
Mountain Lions in Alabama?
Spenser Bradley, an Alabama Extension regional agent covering forestry, wildlife and natural resources management, said confirmed sightings in Alabama are rare.
“There are supposed sightings all the time, the problem is there haven’t been any actual confirmed sightings in a long time,” Bradley said.
Regarding the image taken in 2015, he said the photo could easily be a house cat because there’s nothing to base the animal’s size on.
Dr. Jim Armstrong, an Alabama Extension wildlife specialist said there are usually 20 to 30 supposed mountain lion sightings a year in Alabama, though confirming evidence is lacking.
“I’m skeptical that the 2015 picture is a mountain lion,” Armstrong said. “I wish there was some sort of corroborating evidence.”
Armstrong, who is also a professor at Auburn University, notes Alabama has a history of mountain lions because it is part of their natural range. Mountain lions, also called cougars, panthers or pumas, had a thriving population in Alabama in the 1800s and early 1900s.
“The last confirmed mountain lion sighting was more than 50 years ago,” Armstrong said. “As human population and development expanded, large predators were either killed or forced west to less developed areas.”
Mountain Lions Today
Today mountain lions are prospering in the western U.S., especially in California and Arizona. But the species has made its way back into states where they were previously extinct, the closest being Missouri, Tennessee and Florida.
“That increases the chances of them returning to the state. So, the possibility is there, but as of right now we don’t have any hard evidence that it is reoccurring.”
The endangered Florida panther, a subspecies of the western mountain lion, resides in forests and swamps of southern Florida. According to Armstrong, it is highly unlikely that species would migrate up to Alabama without anyone seeing it on its way. “It’d be more likely we’d have animals coming down into the state from the West.”
According to Armstrong, ironically the Eastern cougar has just been declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is ironic in that many researchers believe that subspecies has been extinct since the early 1970s.
What to Look For
One sure way to identify a mountain lion is through its prints. Mountain lion prints are generally 4 inches across, with three distinct lobes on the pads.
Bradley said that there are calls all the time about prints that are large enough to be from a mountain lion, however they show claw marks.
“Much like other cat species, their claws stay tucked under their paws when they’re walking,” Bradley said. “If people see large prints with visible claw marks, they’re usually large dog prints.”
Depending on the geographical area, these animals can weigh anywhere from 80 to 200 pounds. Armstrong said that identification can be assisted by this animal’s habit with its prey.
“They do what is called caching, which is where they pull leaves and foliage over their prey’s carcass to come back to it later,” Armstrong said. “The length of the distance the animal reaches to pull vegetation over the carcass is indicative of the size of the animal.”
Dangers and Risks
According to Armstrong, mountain lions tend to be secretive and quick.
“For the most part we’re not talking about anything that’s a significant threat to humans, especially with the low populations like we have in the eastern U.S.,” Armstrong said.
“Just like any type of wildlife attack, it is unlikely that a mountain lion would attack an adult human in the Eastern US,” Bradley said. “While attacks do occasionally happen, it is rare, even out west.”
Armstrong’s views align with Bradley’s. But he points out that there are no absolutes with wildlife. There can always be an exception.
Unprovoked, uninvited attacks on humans do happen, but they are rare. Most of the time, it is human activity that leads to instances with wild animals.
“Human attacks are rare in areas where these animals are common,” Armstrong said. “So, in areas where mountain lions are rare the chances are even more remote.”
Spenser Bradley along with his colleague Norm Haley, an Alabama Extension regional agent covering forestry, wildlife and natural resource management, created a three-part series of videos on gathering evidence to confirm cougars in Alabama.
“It is possible that we could have a real sighting in Alabama in the future, and this is how to prove and confirm a sighting,” Bradley said.
These videos can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7KYGcKptHx90X9nDNsCGTEDePqF701js
For more information, visit Alabama Extension online or contact your county Extension office.
First In Text Image: Al.com
Second In Text Image: Ondrej Chvatal/shutterstock.com
Third In Text Image: Debbie Steinhausser/shutterstock.com