Thursday, April 19, 2018

In Search of the Carolina Panther

In Search of the Carolina Panther

Mountain Lion
For as long as I can remember, I have heard tales of people seeing panthers, mountain lions, puma. Felis concolor cougar Also known as Puma concolor cougar. Whatever you choose to call it. I have listened to detailed accounts of individuals who "swear" they saw a large cat (sometimes black) cross the road near their house. Or "while feeding the cows, I saw it sneak out of the woods and slip back in." 

I have heard tales of skilled hunters sitting in deer stands who were so captivated by the sight of the large cat, it never dawned on them to raise their rifle and shoot. And I have listened to sworn testimony of people who "will go to my grave knowing what I saw." 

All the while, the evidence says the opposite. 

Anytime you delve into a subject as emotional as this topic, you do so at your own risk. There will be those who will call you names regardless of what side you end on. And you will get support and hate mail from all who care to enter the debate.  That being the case, here I go - head first into the discussion.

The Carolina Panther existed for hundreds of years in the region of the Carolina's.  At the time of European settlement, the large cat was one of the widest distributed species in North America. As John Garton, South Carolina Wildlife Fund Board Member Emeritus says in a report he issued in 2003. “Today, the only known reproducing population of cougars in the eastern US occur in south Florida in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp.”

Garton goes on to say, “Cougars were eliminated from our state, as they were throughout much of the eastern US, for a combination of reasons including: a) loss of much of the forest and deer herd during the heavy agricultural activity of the late 1800's and b) the cougar's habit of substituting livestock for wild prey items (in the latter cases, stock owners typically took direct and terminal action against the cougars). Today there are no wild reproducing populations of cougars in South Carolina.”

South Carolina does have exotic pet owners and occasionally one of these 'pets' escapes. Currently the state does not keep records of exotic pet owners. No one really knows how many of the exotic pet owners actually have mountain lions, jaguars, pumas, or other large cats in their possession. But as of January 1, 2017, it became illegal for individuals to own any large cat – defined as lion, tiger, leopard, mountain lion, jaguar, cheetah or any combination of these. Current owners can keep their pets until it dies but cannot get new ones.

Having said all of this, here is my personal view on the subject. I know that on an emotional subject as this, the last thing they want are the facts. They just want someone to agree with them and let them know they are not insane. However, the facts should be presented. 

So, here are some facts. 

In South Carolina there are 124,589 registered hunters based on license sales (2016). There are also 14,408 non-resident hunters in SC.

Florida Panther
This translates to roughly 138,997 hunters who actively pursue big game across all of South Carolina. These hunters spent 2,058,112 man-days afield. These same hunters also own an average of 5.4* game cameras each, of which approximately 4 are actively in the field year around to monitor game activity. This translates to roughly 750,000 cameras monitoring the entire state 24/7/365. Add to this the average of fifteen days per hunter afield and the math is quickly getting out of hand.

Now let’s look at the miles of roadways across this state. According to the SCDOT, there are 41,500 miles of roads in SC. And approximately that many miles of county roads.

What does all this mean?

It means, there has never been a verifiable picture of a cougar taken in South Carolina. Not with a game camera or a hand-held camera.  

It means that with millions of man days afield each year, no one has any verifiable proof of the existence of a cougar. No hunter has ever shot one.

It means that with almost 100,000 miles of roads across this state, not one wild large cat has ever been hit and killed by a vehicle in South Carolina.
Florida Panther killed on road

If the cats existed, why hasn’t someone somewhere gotten a picture, hit one with a truck or shot one? The odds of a cougar getting past all those cameras, road crossings, and hunters is so slim that it defies logic. The math and the science agree.

As a professional trapper and outdoor writer, I spend over 250 days a year afield. I am in the woods all the time. Eight hours a day almost every day. During all this time, I have logged tens of thousands of miles across this state, and I have personally never seen a verifiable large cat track, animal, or any resemblance of any such animal.

Does that mean that its not possible for some to have gotten by me? No, it does not. But what it does do, is put opportunity into perspective.

Most hunters hunt less than ten days a year and spend a total of 15-20 days a year scouting, land management and hunting. Comparatively, the amount of time spent in the field compared to the number of sightings are – well – hard to justify.

I do believe that many people have convinced themselves they have seen a large cat roaming the woods near their back forty, or crossed the road in front of them in the wee hours of the morning. However, considering the evidence, the science and math, I must strongly disagree.  

There are no wild cougars in South Carolina.


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