Eastern Cougar - Felis concolor cougar
Contributed by John Garton, SCWF Board Member Emeritus
The cougar (also known as mountain lion, panther, painter, catamount, puma, and other names) was once one of the most widely distributed mammals in the Western Hemisphere. At the time of European settlement it occupied a wide range of habitats from Canada well into parts of South America, and was found throughout the continental United States. Today the only known reproducing population of cougars in the eastern US occurs in south Florida in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp. This Florida population, once down to about 50 animals, is now thought to be back in excess of 100 animals as a positive result of recovery plans.
The largest cat native to the eastern US, adults can exceed 8 ft in total length (including their tail) and 200 lbs. in weight. Cougars are rather long and slender in appearance. They have short ears and large round heads. Their fur is short and rather uniform reddish to light brown in color. A distinctive feature is their 30-inch long tail (so different from our native and still abundant bobcat, which has a very short tail). Young cougars are marked with dark spots.
Cougars are stealthy predators that can run up to 35 miles per hour. They were once major factors in the ecosystems of our South Carolina forests and coastal swamps where adults killed deer and other large prey items (wild hogs, raccoons, woodland buffalo, etc). Adults are largely nocturnal, solitary and territorial. They are active hunters and may cover as much as 20 miles in a night. It is estimated that cougars make a kill of a large prey item (deer, etc) about once each week. They typically target a sick deer or other individual animal not in prime condition. Usually a shy cat, the cougar prefers to stalk its prey and is rarely ever a threat to people.
There are approximately 20 recognized geographic races of the cougar throughout its range. In South Carolina it is thought that the cougars occurring here were of both the eastern race (Felis concolor cougar) and the Florida race (Felis concolor coryi). The US Fish and Wildlife Service lists both of these races as endangered.
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. However, an individual animal is occasionally observed, or killed, as a result of someone releasing a "pet" cougar that got to be too much for them to handle. While there is some doubt the cougar still exists south of the Canadian Maritime provinces, significant sightings occur in Tennessee and North and South Carolina. Greenville and Pickens Counties are among the several counties where sightings have been reported in South Carolina.
Although gone from the eastern US (except Florida), the cougar is doing well throughout much of the western US, and is a game animal in many locations. In South Carolina, as in much of the east, what largely remains of the cougar is its name, which is linked to many of our landscape features. When you see the name "panther" "painter", "catamount" and other cougar synonyms attached to creeks, mountain peaks, gaps, and other features of our topography, it is a testament to the fact that this large predator was not only once here in South Carolina and the eastern US, but that its presence impressed people enough to name a place after it.