Does the eastern cougar still roam our region?

By on June 24, 2024

Despite sightings reported by locals, wildlife officials say there’s just no proof

The eastern cougar has been classified as extinct, but that doesn’t stop the sightings. (NC Wildlife Resource Commission/file photo)

The eastern cougar, once a majestic presence in the forests of North Carolina, was wiped out in the state in the late 1800s and officially declared extinct in 2011. Despite this designation, the creature remains shrouded in mystery and intrigue, as numerous residents in eastern North Carolina have reported sightings over the years.

Despite US Fish and Wildlife officials finding no physical evidence of their presence, the ongoing accounts of encounters keep the legend and lore of the eastern cougar alive, fueling curiosity and debate among wildlife enthusiasts and locals alike.

Two weeks ago, Kill Devil Hills resident Justin Scott took to the OBX Locals Facebook group after seeing what seemed to be a large cat with a long tail leap across the road in front of him in Engelhard, just north of Stumpy Point on Highway 264.

“This was not a dog or coyote or anything like that, it was absolutely a large feline and not a bobcat,” he wrote. “I know what bobcats look like and this looked larger than an adult bobcat would be and also had a long tail and entirely different fur. The fur was very short, not longish and poofy on the face and belly like it would be on a bobcat. I know I didn’t imagine this thing!”

The cougar, classified as a member of the small cat family due to its skull and eye structure, is actually the largest of its relatives. Its coloration varies depending on habitat and season, typically ranging from tawny to grayish brown on its back and flanks, complemented by a white chest, belly, and throat. Dark patches mark the upper lip and back of the ears, while its tail ends in a distinctive black tip.

It did not take long after the post was published for more than 30 members of the OBX Locals Facebook group from around eastern North Carolina to tell similar tales of sightings spanning the last few decades, with others proclaiming their belief that the eastern cougar, or puma concolor cougar, is, in fact, out there.

“Lived here in Stumpy Point all my life (77) years and have seen what you described a couple of times,” wrote one Facebook user. “Old folks always called them panthers but most likely a cougar. Bigger than a Bobcat with a long tail and dark in color. The ones I have seen were in the area us natives call the “gum swamp” which is between the shooting range and the landfill.” Another user added, “I’ve also seen a panther or two on the range and East Lake side Milltail Road.”

“Believe it or not I saw something very similar to what you described at the Manteo/ Wanchese intersection last year. Late one night I was coming home from work and on the stretch to Skyco from the intersection it was standing on the side of the road. Got a really good look at it before it darted off,” wrote someone else.

According to US Fish and Wildlife officials, the last confirmed sighting of a wild eastern cougar outside of Florida occurred in 2011 when one was struck and killed by a car in Milford, Connecticut. Genetic testing revealed that this cougar had traveled over 1,500 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota, indicating it was not a remnant of the eastern cougar population, but rather a western cougar that had migrated eastward.

In eastern North Carolina specifically, the last officially confirmed sighting occurred in the 1980s. According to a report sent to the Voice by a representative of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, two cougars were found feeding at a dumpster in Tyrrell County. Upon investigation, these animals were identified as escaped pets, marked by tattoos.

Many skeptics believe that reported sightings of cougars in regions like eastern North Carolina are simply cases of mistaken identity, with the animals often confused with bobcats or other wildlife. However, a number of those who claim to have seen cougars note that they are seasoned hunters and outdoorsmen who assert their familiarity with the woods and wildlife, emphasizing that they know the characteristics of bobcats and other animals well.

Tanner Payne, 30, of Manteo, has hunted throughout the area since he was a young boy. He claims he saw a cougar 15 years ago when hunting with his dad in Columbia on the edge of a 500-acre cornfield.

“It walked clear across the field right in front of me about 500 yards away. And I mean, it was huge. It was every bit of four to five feet long with the tail almost as long as the body,” recalls Payne. He texted his dad immediately, who brushed off the sighting as a housecat. “I’m like, ‘dad, this is not a house cat’…This cat was bigger than me at the time, you know?  Needless to say, he never believed me.”

Kill Devil Hills resident Ted Moseley, another veteran woodsman, was on his farm in Windsor, North Carolina just last August dealing with wild hogs when he claims he came across four cougars near a swamp on the back corner of the farm.

“I got within fifty yards and saw them clearly. It wasn’t a bobcat. It wasn’t anything except a cougar. It was a long tail cat,” recalls Moseley, who says he sees bobcats on his farm often. “There’s no comparison. Bobcats are small and have a bobbed tail”

Bob Noffsinger, a retired biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says he and his colleagues spent decades after the establishment of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in the mid-1980s searching for evidence of cougars while out in the field after receiving multiple reports of sightings.

“I had spent a lot of time down here, and certainly wanted them to be down here,” says Noffsinger, explaining that there was a substantial crew of biologists and technicians out in the field who all had a curiosity and interest in seeing if they were really out there. He even contacted cougar biologists in the west and had them send some plaster cast of tracks so he and the rest of the team could learn to identify their tracks.

According to Noffsinger and other biologists and managers from the refuge, there are a few things they look for when looking for evidence of the eastern cougar, which include tracks and footprints, scat (feces), photographic and video evidence from trail cameras, hair samples caught on fences or branches, specific scrapes or scratches left on trees, or kill sites where cougars will typically leave an animal they have killed and cover it with debris to come back to finish it later.

“But we never found anything to prove that they were here or even make us think that they were here,” he says.

According to a report from North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, domestic cats and dogs, coyotes, bobcats, and red foxes infected with mange (a skin disease that affects mammals caused by microscopic mites that burrow into the skin) are the most common animals mistaken for cougars. Noffsinger says that many people think bobcats only have short tails, but said that some bobcats can have tails that are up to a foot long.

Some question whether it’s a possibility that the sightings could be cougars who have traveled up from Florida, but former US Fish and Wildlife Refuge manager Scott Lanier, who was the manager when they found the tattooed cougars in the 1980s, says that’s not likely, noting that it “would be a long way to go.”

“There’s many pitfalls along the way trying to reach this area. I just don’t see that as a likely scenario,” he adds.

Both Lanier and Mike Bryant, manager of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge from 1996 to 2016 who started his career at the Great Dismal Swamp in 1979, believe sightings are much more likely to be of an exotic pet that has been released into the woods by its owner when it got too wild and unruly or escaped captivity from a zoo or sanctuary.

According to Bryant, reintroducing a species and maintaining viable populations is a complex and challenging endeavor. Even in regions like Florida, where there has been a concerted effort to preserve the Florida panther south of the Everglades, the success has been limited, with population numbers remaining relatively small. This underscores the difficulty of such conservation efforts, which require not only suitable habitat, but also effective management of factors like genetic diversity and human-wildlife interactions.

Bryant says he can’t say with a 100% certainty that they aren’t out there, but adds that unless some kind of physical proof is found, such as DNA evidence, paw prints, scat or clear pictures. the existence of the eastern cougar in these parts cannot be confirmed.

“And getting really good pictures that aren’t all fuzzy—like the pictures they post in various publications about Bigfoot, and it’s always this shadowy creature and you’re like, ‘Okay, is it Bigfoot?’ You’ve got to have solid evidence. Otherwise, it’s still a guess on everybody’s part.”

 

 


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Comments

  • neal b

    About 20 years ago I lived in Duck and was riding my bike along the trail in the Audubon Preserve and a cougar ran across my path.
    I braked so hard I almost went over the handlebars.
    Afterwards I called Fish & Wildlife to make a report. They said the big cat was extinct in NE Carolina, but they have reports each year of sightings’
    Later that week I heard that a lineman for the power company reported seeing a pair of them while working north of Penny’s Hill.

    Tuesday, Jun 25 @ 7:15 am
  • SHEILA GOLDEN

    I am 68 years old and have lived in Stumpy Point all of my life and have seen the blond cougar twice in my lifetime. Both times about 2 years apart was in the area of Point Peter road on Hwy 264 about 4 miles before you get to Bayview dr. Where you turn to go down in the village of Stumpy Point. The first sighting was after the re-introduction of the Red wolf into the Alligator refuge. I had attended all the meetings about the red wolf and knew what one looked like. At the time I was working for Dominion Energy and traveled to a from work at all times of the day and night.
    On the first sighting I was returning from a trip to Chesapeake Va when I came around the curve known to the locals as Dewey’s curve when something ran across the road and layer down across the center line. This animal had what appeared to have cat ears and stretched across the center line of the road with a tail that was all the way to edge of the road. The cat looked just like the mountain lions that were in the old westerns. My Mom was with me and we set there waiting for this creature to move all of the road she ask me if that was a red wolf. My response to her was not in this lifetime. He must have sit there a good 5 mins before he got up and ran. When I got home I called biologist at that time at Alligator Refuge and told him what I had seen and his first question was Sheila tell me you got a picture. I was sorry that I was in my parents car not mine. They all knew that I always had my camera with me.

    My 2nd sighting came about 2 years later within a mile of the 1st location. Called the biologist again his question was did you get a picture? Once again I had to say no. In my Dad’s pick-up.

    I know what I saw and you will never convince me that what I saw was not a blonde cougar. They are very majestic and when they move is much more fluid movement then anything else in these parts. This all occurred in the mid 1980’s.

    Tuesday, Jun 25 @ 9:09 am
  • Browny Douglas

    I have seen a yellow long tail cat about 500 yards but with a spotting scope. I have seen a huge black long tailed cat within twelve ( yes 12 ) feet of me without a spotting scope. Both in Dare. I questioned a then National Park ranger and he said they did not exist. Several yrs later upon his retirement he called me to his house to admit to me that these cats do exist. Said he could do so now that he was retired.

    Tuesday, Jun 25 @ 9:33 am
  • KeninVB

    About 15 years ago, I saw one on the river bank of the Merherrin River while fishing near Murfreesboro, NC. It could have been a released pet, but it was definitely a cougar.

    Tuesday, Jun 25 @ 10:17 am
  • George Constanza

    I’ve seen plenty of cougars around dusk at the brewing station

    Tuesday, Jun 25 @ 11:19 am
  • Jeff Walker

    Driving back late at night a couple years ago I saw something similar slinking off into the marsh at the 64/264 junction near Mann’s Harbor. Thought it was a coyote at first, but it was definitely feline. Maybe it is someone’s pet that got loose, who knows.

    Tuesday, Jun 25 @ 12:23 pm
  • Wondering

    What defines an “officially confirmed sighting?” Does it have to be a trained government official or what? And how many folks around here keep cougars as “exotic pets” and how many of those have escaped from homes or places like the Stumpy Point Zoo?

    Tuesday, Jun 25 @ 10:51 pm
  • Clearwatrs

    I saw a large Black Cat With a Long tail Cross the road in front of my car, On the beach rd in Kitty Hawk a Month or Two ago…

    Wednesday, Jun 26 @ 4:53 pm
  • Hal McCray

    I love it when the so called “experts” tell us who have lived here a long time and have seen cougars and black panthers, in broad daylight, on many occasions – that they are NOT here and we misidentified because only they are smart enough to tell us, that what we saw, we didn’t really see. Kinda like the whole UFO/UAP phenomenon that was denied and covered up and told us that what we saw was really something else, And now after all these years they finally admitted it’s real and real enough that Congress is investigating the phenomenon to determine the truth revealed by government whistleblowers.

    Friday, Jun 28 @ 4:41 pm
  • Sandflea

    So if one were to shoot an extinct cougar, they wouldn’t get in a trouble…. right?

    Monday, Jul 8 @ 4:00 pm
  • Sean Dos Santos

    I have trail cam pics from central NC of a large black cat against the backdrop of a wood slat fence. I have to find the SD card it is on. Had a NC Game Warden tell me it was a bobcat. Yeah… twice as big as a bobcat with a long tail and black fur. Clowns.

    Wednesday, Jul 10 @ 9:40 pm