Archived Mountain Voices

Panther sightings persist in the Smokies

Panthertown Valley near Cashiers. Panthertown Valley near Cashiers.

Have you ever seen a mountain lion here in the Smokies region? I haven’t. In fact, the only one I’ve ever viewed outside of a zoo was somewhere near Crystal River, Florida, back in the early 1990s. It bounded out of the scrub in front of my truck and passed quickly across the highway. Even now, I can vividly recall the combined grace and power of that animal.

I frequently hear from people who have spotted a mountain lion in Western North Carolina. Or at least they think that’s what they saw. I’d guess that about 90 percent of these sightings are of something else. But the other 10 percent seem to be pretty reliable.

It’s my supposition that any mountain lions living in this region today aren’t descendents of the genetic stock that were originally here. That is, I think they are ones that have wandered into the eastern mountains from Florida or the western states; or, more likely, that they are ones that were trapped elsewhere and deliberately released. Whatever the source, I’m reasonably certain that we have mountain lions in the Smokies region.

The Family Felidae contains a number of species, including jaguars, ocelots, mountain lions, bobcats, lynxes and domestic cats. Bobcats are very common in the Smokies region, but they are very secretive and are seldom seen.

Mountain lions were common enough well into the 19th century throughout North Carolina. According to Donald W. Linzey’s notes in Mammals of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (1995), the last mountain lion killed in the Great Smokies was back in the early winter of 1920: “Tom Sparks was said to have been attacked by a panther while herding sheep on Spence Field. He managed to inflict a deep wound in its left shoulder. Several months later, W. Orr killed a panther near what is now Fontana Village and found that its left shoulder blade was cut in two. This was generally believed to be the same cat Mr. Sparks had wounded.

Nevertheless, according to Linzey, there were 12 reported sightings between 1908 and 1965 and 31 sightings for the years 1966-1976. He doesn’t provide figures since that date, but my recent discussions with park service biologists would lead me to believe that sightings have increased in the Smokies in recent years, particularly in the Clingmans Dome area. Also, several National Park Service rangers have told me that they have spotted mountain lions while patrolling the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even if only 10 percent of these reports are valid, that still allows for a relatively significant mountain lion population in the Smokies region.

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Editor’s note: A longer version of this column by George Ellison first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in May 2003.

(George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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  • I saw a mountain lion just outside Cashiers, near Sapphire on hwy 64, on 9/8/22 at night. The cat was about 15 yards off the road.

    posted by Lee

    Tuesday, 09/13/2022

  • Just saw a panther out my window, in the Sapphire, NC area.
    They definitely are still here.

    posted by Laura

    Monday, 06/06/2022

  • Back around 2006 -2007 my husband,our daughter and myself were on the Blueridge Parkway in Virginia and towards dusk a juvenile lion crossed the road in front of us! I describe it as juvenile because it had faint spots on it's coat but as soon as I saw the long tail I knew it was a lion. We lived in the middle of the Manassas National Battlefield for 33+ years and we started hearing cats along Bull Run about every 30 days or so and many of our neighbors had visual sightings. The man who supplied me with hay for my horses and had cattle. He found a dead half eaten calf that was dragged high into a tree! That signals cat behavior to me!

    posted by Jean Pitt

    Wednesday, 10/20/2021

  • I was a park ranger in the 1990s after I finished college with a degree in fish and wildlife management. I saw a small mountain lion while closing park gates one night, saw it very well, long tail and all. A couple years later I was coon hunting and the dogs treed a mountain lion within 3 or 4 miles of my original siting. I saw it very well again and assume it was the same cat.

    Since then I have lived in Colorado and Idaho the past 15 years and saw quite a few more while hunting. While I was in college I saw more pictures of lions in the lake toxaway and cashiers nc area. There are absolutely some around just not enough females for reproductive success. The wild hog population would support quite a few lions. I personally would like to see them back in the Appalachian mountains in reasonable numbers.

    posted by Dan Patterson

    Monday, 10/11/2021

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