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Researcher tracks clues on mountain lion sightings in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

May 17, 2016

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There are eight to 10 reported sightings of mountain lions, also called cougars or pumas, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year.

If mountain lions are making a comeback in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Donald W. Linzey, a wildlife conservation instructor in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment, will be one of the first to know.

The resurgence of a breeding population of mountain lions helps maintain balance in the ecosystem. As predators, mountain lions keep a check on the numbers of other mammals, especially deer.

As part of the area’s 26th annual Wilderness Wildlife Week, Linzey will present a talk titled “Evidence of Mountain Lions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park” on Saturday, May 21, at 1:30 p.m. in Greenbrier Hall A at the LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This marks Linzey’s 16th appearance at the event.

Linzey has dedicated 40 years to verifying the status of the mountain lion in the southeastern mountains, particularly in the Great Smokies. He works with park rangers who send him information on reported sightings of mountain lions, also known as cougars or pumas.

“There are about eight to 10 reports of mountain lion sightings a year, some by tourists, some by veterinarians, and some by a wildlife photographer,” Linzey said. “Several sightings have occurred at the site of a known animal crossing in the park.”

Besides reviewing the sighting reports, Linzey seeks other evidence of mountain lions. He uses hair snares, which are small devices attached to trees that the mountain lions may rub against. DNA analysis of the hair could potentially confirm the animal’s presence in the park.

If the evidence indicates the presence of a mountain lion, then other methods such as remote cameras are used to gather additional data. Linzey uses a variety of tools, including his pet dog, who often sniffs out scat, or droppings, as the two of them walk the park’s trails.

“The mountain lion,” Linzey noted, “was part of the park's fauna until 1920 when the last verified mountain lion was killed. Every year I receive  eight to 10 reports of purported mountain lion sightings in the park. However, in most instances, there is no supporting evidence such as hair, a photo, a video, track cast, or any other evidence to support the sighting.”

Linzey does speak with each person reporting a sighting and gets them to tell him exactly what they saw, including the time of day; color and description of the animal; its behavior; the person’s distance from the animal; and if there were more than one observer. 

“I have concluded that approximately 40 percent of the reports are probably of a mountain lion,” Linzey stated. “Several persons who have submitted recent reports have said that they were planning to attend my presentation this year, so we should have an interesting discussion. Last year, the great grandson of the man who was attacked by the last verified mountain lion in the park was in attendance.”

Linzey, who has been teaching for more than 50 years, was an early advocate for endangered species. He organized Virginia’s first Symposium on Endangered and Threatened Plants and Animals at Virginia Tech in 1978 and edited the 665-page proceedings.

The third edition of his book “Mammals of Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” first published in 1971, will be published this year. His body of work includes the textbook “Vertebrate Biology,” recognized nationally as the most readable on the subject, and the guidebooks “A Natural History Guide: Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” “Mammals of Virginia,” and “Snakes of Virginia.”

Linzey teaches several wildlife courses in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and directs a seven-day symposium course in the Great Smokies as part of the Natural History Consortium with the University of Georgia, Purdue University, and Virginia Tech. He previously taught at Wytheville Community College for 24 years.

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