September 2017
From Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Keep Things in Perspective!

It’s a hard thing to do on many occasions, but it’s something we must strive to do.

 

At first glance, the photo of me and the rabbit looks real, and it is. There is no computer-generated illusion. It is simply depth of field. I am sitting 30 feet behind the rabbit. Look at the size of the rabbit in relation to the leaves on the ground and the crosstie it’s lying on.

Last week I received another of the many sketchy photos of a big cat that was said to be roaming around the state. So, I started working on this article with the hopes of clearing up some of the big cat rumors that continuously circulate, knowing full well it’s going to ruffle a few feathers in the process. I guess I just don’t understand the overwhelming desire for people to see a long-tailed cat or black panther in Alabama. What I do understand is that some people take it extremely personally when anyone in the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division attempts to explain to them the current status of such creatures in our state. Many of these encounters end with that person dumbfounded by the lack of concurrence from WFF staff. They sometimes end with the person shouting obscenities and at times even threatening acts of physical violence.

As a biologist, I prefer to base my actions on facts rather than emotions. I am only human, so I’m not saying that occasionally I don’t let emotions play a role. But for the most part, I make my decisions based on the facts. In the 4.5 years I’ve been the director, a week has not gone by that someone in WFF hasn’t been confronted with a long-tailed cat question. Let’s take a minute to look at some facts. What is the possibility of a wild mountain lion population currently existing in our state?

First, despite the fact that mountain lions historically lived in Alabama and theoretically could still reside in the suitable habitats remaining here, the last confirmed mountain lion in Alabama was killed around 1948 in St. Clair County. To date, there has been no confirmed mountain lion sighting in Alabama in almost 70 years.

The nearest self-sustaining known wild population of mountain lions, called Florida panthers, is found in southwest Florida. Although they reside in the second-largest uninhabited block of land east of the Mississippi River, vehicle mortality is one of the leading causes of death for Florida panthers. In 2014, the population of Florida panthers was estimated to be 100-180 adults. During that year, 25 of them (approximately 15 percent of the entire population) were killed while crossing the road. In Alabama, no mountain lion/vehicle collisions have been confirmed for at least 70 years and resident populations appear to have been extirpated from Alabama in the mid-1800s.

The last mountain lion photo sent to me has a white salt block in the picture. The block was half the size of the cat. So the cat couldn’t have weighed over 25-30 pounds. Simple observations like that should help people know what they are looking at is a bobcat  – a large one, but still a bobcat.

 

The next fact is the one that automatically disqualifies approximately 90 percent of the alleged sightings in my book. Even though someone’s great-grandmother’s once-removed cousin’s brother saw one and he would never lie, there has never been a documented case of a black mountain lion in all of North America. Please allow me to repeat that statement: There has never been a documented case of a black mountain lion (black panther) in all of North America. They are gray, brown or reddish in color.

Only two species of large cats in the world are known to have a black (melanistic) color variant. The leopard, found in Africa and Asia, and the jaguar, from South America to Mexico and in small sections of the southwestern United States, have been known to have black color variants on rare occasions. In case you were wondering, southwestern United States does not encompass Mobile, Baldwin, Washington or Choctaw counties.

The next fact leads me to the title of the article. I knew what I wanted to write about, but a title kept eluding me. That’s when I came across a photo of me with a Boone and Crocket jackrabbit, and it all fell into place. The most common similarity in the vast majority of the photos we receive is perspective issues, either intentional (Photoshop) or unintentional (shadows, blurry, depth perception, etc.).

At first glance, the photo of me and the rabbit looks real, and it is. There was no computer-generated illusion other than cropping the original photo. It was simple depth of field. I am sitting 30 feet behind the rabbit. Look at the size of the rabbit in relation to the leaves on the ground and the crosstie it’s lying on. The last mountain lion photo that was sent to me had a white salt block in the picture. The block was half the size of the cat, so, the cat couldn’t have weighed over 25-30 pounds. Simple observations like that should help people know what they are looking at is a bobcat – a large one, but still a bobcat. But, that was a case where emotions trump logic.

 

One photo circulated several times over the past few years actually has a mountain lion dragging a whitetail buck by the neck next to a feeder. The photo certainly is real. However, examination of the surroundings reveals caliche gravel around the feeder; we don’t have that in Alabama. Also, the coloration of the buck is consistent with deer from Texas or Mexico where caliche is found. Clearly, this photo could not have been taken from a trail camera in Alabama.

One photo that has been circulated several times over the past few years actually has a mountain lion dragging a whitetail buck by the neck next to a feeder. The claim is always, "My friend’s trail camera caught this last week in _____ County." The county of choice has changed several times over the past few years. The photo certainly looks real. However, examination of the surroundings reveals caliche gravel around the feeder; we don’t have that in Alabama. Also, the coloration of the buck is consistent with deer from Texas or Mexico where caliche is found. Clearly, this photo could not have been taken from a trail camera in Alabama.

Reports of mountain lion sightings in Alabama are common, but these are most likely cases of mistaken identity. No reports have been confirmed by trail cameras, road kills, traditional photography or hunter-harvested specimens since 1948. With the astronomical number of game cameras in the Alabama woods 365 days per year, common sense tells you we would have gotten one on camera by now. If Florida runs over approximately 15 percent of the population of Florida panthers each year, why hasn’t one been hit by a vehicle in Alabama if they exist?

WFF is not trying to cover up anything and has never attempted to. We would like to know if Alabama has big, long-tailed cats. Tennessee had a couple wander through last year. Who knows, we may actually get a confirmed sighting in Alabama soon. But until then, please don’t expect a wildlife biologist from this department to believe a story about the black panther that screamed like a crazy woman that your friend heard or saw last week. Bring us concrete proof, and we will believe.

 

Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.