The Southeast Region consists of Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The only "officially recognized" population of cougars in the east exists in South Florida. This is an isolated population, individuals of which are referred to as "Florida panthers."
Outside of Florida, credible activity is concentrated in the western part of this region. For this reason, The Cougar Network has broken the Southeast into two sub-regions (east and west). Separate interactive maps are presented below for each sub-region. While East Texas is not a part of the Southeast Region, confirmations from this area are included for informational purposes. It is possible that cougars from Texas are moving east to re-colonize former territory. A discussion of each sub-region can be found beneath the respective map for that area. For detailed information on a particular incident, click on the dot. Numbers inside a dot indicates multiple incidents at that location.
Confirmation Map (western sub-region)
The Cougar Network has documented a significant amount of cougar activity in this sub-region. The incidents in Arkansas and Louisiana take on greater significance when viewed in conjunction with those from East Texas.
Texas is acknowledged to have healthy resident populations of cougars in the extreme southern and western portions of the state. This is despite the fact that the species receives no legal protection. In Texas, cougars may be hunted or trapped at any time using any legal method. Habitat loss and fragmentation, decimation of prey populations, and unregulated hunting and trapping, led to its presumed extirpation from the eastern portion of the state by the early 1900's.
After several decades of apparent absence from East Texas, confirmed presence of cougars began to be recorded in the early 1990's. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TP&W) has provided The Cougar Network with 11 mortality reports from this area since 1990. We expect to receive additional reports of confirmed sightings in future. The sheer number of credible reports suggests that transient cougars are beginning to show up in this portion of the state with some regularity, although some may be former captives. Given the area's proximity to Arkansas and Louisiana, it is possible that cougars are crossing over into those states as well. The major obstacle to re-colonization through East Texas is the increasing fragmentation of potential habitat and dispersal corridors. According to TP&W biologists, this portion of the state is projected to experience continued rampant development and human population growth, reducing the long-term likelihood of cougar re-establishment.
In 2002, biologists associated with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock published a research paper on their efforts to document the presence of free-ranging cougars in Arkansas. Between 1996 and 2000, they collected 7 pieces of "Class I" or tangible evidence (e.g. scats, tracks, and video). It is believed that this evidence documented the presence of at least four individual cats. These incidences are presented on the map above. The researchers also collected 23 pieces of "Class II" evidence (reports made by an observer of known reliability (i.e., a biologist)). The co-authors concluded that there were a few cougars present in the state, but were uncertain of their origins (i.e., former captives vs. transients).
There have been two confirmations in Arkansas subsequent to the publication of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock paper. Both were animals photographed by wildlife cameras, the most recent of which occurred in August, 2003. Hunter Don Scott placed a heat sense remote camera on private land near the Winona Wildlife Management Area just west of Little Rock. Upon developing the film, he found that one of the animals he captured on print was a mountain lion! Here is an account and the picture.
The Cougar Network has documented three Louisiana 2008 confirmations, one resulting in the killing of the animal and the other two being trail camera pictures, and one confirmation from 2002. In April 2002, State biologist Mike Carloss had a visual sighting of a cougar in Lake Fausse Pointe State Park. Scat was subsequently found which tested positive for cougar DNA. Also, an interesting sighting report occurred in July 2000. Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDW&F) biologist John Stacy and two others had a good visual sighting of a cougar in Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, near the Texas border. This area has been a hotbed for credible cougar reports in recent years.
Confirmation Map (eastern sub-region
Green = Established population
South Florida harbors the only documented remnant population of cougars in the east. Aside from this well-known and high profile population, The Cougar Network has not documented significant cougar activity from this sub-region.
Over the past three decades, federal and state agencies have spent millions of dollars to protect and recover Florida panthers. They have built wildlife underpasses to reduce roadkill. They released Texas cougars into the range to reduce inbreeding that had led to heart murmurs, reproductive system problems and other physical defects. They acquired land to prevent habitat loss to development. As a result, the estimated panther population has rebounded from a low of about 30 adults to 80 - 100.
Threats remain, particularly from the continuing land development in Collier and Lee counties. But even if the remaining habitat in South Florida can be secured, biologists are not optimistic about the species' prospects for long-term survival. "In South Florida we simply don't have enough space to achieve a large enough population and enough habitat to adequately protect the panther from extinction," reports John Kasbohm, a biologist with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS), who leads the recovery team. "Without reintroduction, we won't be able to ensure the persistence of the only large cat that still occurs in the eastern United States."
A federal recovery team is currently assessing wilderness areas in nine states as possible sites for reintroduction (Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina, North Carolina and Mississippi). These sites include the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, the lower Apalachicola River in the Florida Panhandle, the southern Appalachian Mountains and more than a dozen other areas in the panther's historic range. The team completed a habitat assessment report in November 2003. Arkansas was deemed to contain the most suitable habitat for reintroduction. It is anticipated that the USF&WS will choose two or three areas and bring them to the public, beginning a lengthy and difficult process of environmental reviews and public hearings.
While there have been no known Florida panther attacks on people, any proposed reintroduction program is likely to face significant local opposition. Many people oppose it for fear the panthers could endanger children or livestock. Arkansas wildlife officials have already refused to serve on the recovery team. "Getting the public to accept these things would be a pretty monumental effort," said Donny Harris, chief of the wildlife management division of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.
Evidence suggests that the remaining panther habitat in South Florida may have reached carrying capacity. Biologists have documented an increase in long-distance dispersal by young transient males, which appear to be moving north looking for unoccupied territory. Unfortunately, these migrants face many obstacles. Even with these obstacles, however, there appears to be increasing evidence of late of panthers outside their established range. We have documented ten recent confirmations, one as far north as west-central Georgia. This confirms that some have made it through a gauntlet of roads and other obstacles to get to GA.. Unfortunately, the GA confirmation resulted in death as it was killed by a hunter. DNA evidence showed it was not an escaped captive but a FL panther. That is a migration of hundreds of miles!
There is continued speculation that the Great Smokey Mountains National Park (in Tennessee and North Carolina) could have harbored a remnant population of cougars. This is based on the fact that about 20% of the park was never significantly disturbed by logging or cleared for agriculture. In addition, there have been numerous credible sighting reports over the past three decades, some by wildlife professionals. However, no hard evidence has been produced to date, despite continued searching. Speculation continues, as a recent article suggests.
Alabama has had a number of credible sightings but nothing that can be classified as a confirmation or probable. An interesting article published in 1999 from Alabama Wildlife magazine, a publication of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, examines the status of cougars in Alabama and the history of the species in that state.
Mississippi and South Carolina have also had a number of credible sighting reports, but no hard evidence. Click here to read what a Mississippi state biologist had to say about the status of cougars in that state in 1999.
Florida has a confirmed population of cougars ("Florida panthers") in the southern third of the state. There is evidence that young transient animals are increasingly dispersing north of this established range in an effort to find unoccupied territory. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles in their way. Florida has one of the fastest growing human populations in the country and ever increasing development is threatening potential dispersal corridors. The USF&W service is currently leading an effort to identify potential habitat in the Southeastern states for the establishment of additional populations. However, any reintroduction plan will likely be difficult to implement, primarily due to political considerations in the states involved.
Outside of Florida, credible activity is concentrated in Arkansas and Louisiana. Cougars found in these two states may represent transients from known populations in west and south Texas, although a few may be of captive origin. Like Florida, the major obstacle to re-colonization of Arkansas and Louisiana is the increasing fragmentation of potential habitat and dispersal corridors in East Texas.
Despite habitat loss resulting from expanding development, suitable niches still exist in several areas of the Southeast. Prey populations in the form of deer, feral hogs, and other game are plentiful.