This is a perennial topic of conversation, and a lot of people believe that they are still here. There’s no doubt that they were here in the early settler days. The number of place names with “panther” or “painter” – the local pronunciation – in them makes that clear, as do a lot of settler accounts.
I’ve never seen one in Georgia, although I did see one a few years ago in Greene County, Indiana, crossing I-65 at first light. That was no mistake. When I got home, I checked the Indiana DNR’s website, which confirmed sightings in that vicinity. There’s no mistaking that long tail.
I personally believe that with all the national forest we have, that it is likely that they are still here. A colleague in the real estate business told me that he had a dog so badly mauled that the vet concluded that it was a panther, because he didn’t think a coyote could do as much damage as was done to the dog. This attack, whatever it was, took place off McCullough Switch, out Spur 60.
There was an article in yesterday’s New York Times that casts some light on this. I’ll try to link to it, but I don’t know how well it will work. But in the article a cougar expert talks about the eastward movement of the species, saying among other things that their presence significantly reduces deer-car collisions and may help control chronic wasting disease in deer. Cougars – panthers by another name – eat a lot of deer.
As part of his research, he has identified a number of areas in the east that could host “isolated but sustainable” populations of cougars. One of them is a rather large area in Tennessee, from the Smoky Mountains south to extreme northern South Carolina and further south into a substantial portion of north Georgia, including Fannin County.
I’d guess that given that the habitat is suitable, they’re already here, and always have been here, perhaps far back in the wilderness areas, although there are those who claim to have seen them in town.
There’s a map on the link below. If the link doesn’t work for you, try Googling “New York Times Cougars Heading East.”