Get a good look – these animals will likely never be seen again in the mountains of East Tennessee
As someone who has lived in the Smoky Mountains for nearly 35 years, I often think about the mountains’ history. What was it like when red wolves roamed the hills? Or what would it have been like to see a flock of Passenger Pigeons so big they blot out the sun? In this article, we’re going to look at species that no longer exist (almost assuredly) in the Smokies.
Among the species missing from the Smoky Mountains are the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, the Green Salamander, the Red Wolf and the Eastern Cougar. Complicating matters, some species are listed as gone in one place but not another.
IN THIS ARTICLE
Gone but not forgotten
Many animals used to exist in the mountains. Some, like the Green Salamander, have other variants of their species thriving in the mountains. Others – like the Carolina Parakeet – are nothing but memories in a book. Below are some of the animals that no longer live in the park.
Carolina Parakeet – The only Parrot species native to the Eastern United States, the Carolina Parakeet lived from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico. With a green body and yellow and red head feathers, the last known species in the wild was killed in 1904. The last Carolina Parakeet died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918 in the aviary where the last Passenger Pigeon died four years earlier.
Passenger Pigeon – Ah, Pigeon Forge’s namesake. Known for their massive population – up to 40 percent of the total US birds – they were essentially hunted to extinction. Early settlers in the mountains describe flocks large enough to blot out the sun.
Red-Cockaded Woodpecker – Another member of the Endangered Species list, the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker used to be common. However, their habitat is not limited to pine forests in Eastern North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and across the Southern U.S. to Texas. Why are they gone from the Mountains? Interestingly, they prefer forests with an open understory maintained by frequent fires, according to the Audubon Society. The Parks’ policy of fire suppression may be affecting that.
Williamson’s Emerald Dragonfly – Last seen in the park in the 1940s, the Williamson’s Emerald Dragonfly may have been affected by the arrival of the national park. The dragonfly prefers orchard trees and fields to dense forests.
Gray Wolf – The largest wild member of the dog family. The species was targeted as part of a predator elimination program in the early 1900s. In the U.S. they only remain in northern Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Minnesota and farther west into Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Northern California.
Red Wolf – The last Red Wolf was seen in the wild in 1980. The park tried a reintroduction program for this critically endangered species in 1999, but it failed. Today, the park is home to the Red Wolf’s cousin, the coyote.
Fisher – A member of the weasel family, the fisher was trapped out of existence in the Smoky Mountains in the 1800s. They were successfully reintroduced into the wilds of West Virginia a few decades ago. That population has been spreading but has not made its way back to the Smokies. They remain among the animals listed as extirpated – destroyed completely.
Eastern Cougar aka Puma – The last Eastern Puma was seen in the Smokies in 1920s. The big cat which once roamed across the southeast was officially declared extinct in 2018.
American Bison – There was never a large population of American bison in the Smokies, but some lived in the region in some significant numbers. They were hunted out of the area by the 1700s.
Spotfin Chub – A 2022 article listing five species extirpated from the park includes the Spotfin Chub or Emerald Chub. The Spotfin – which has a dark streak on its dorsal fin – only lived in the lower part of Abrams Creek near Cades Cove.
Flame Chub – A species of fish that had a limited habitat in the mountains to begin with. According to a Missing Species National Park Service article published in 2015, the Flame Chub was last seen in 1990 in the park. Even then, this orange-tinged fish only lived – within the Little Tennessee River watershed – in Cades Cove Springs. The species is also found in the Cumberlands and locations south of Knoxville, according to the National Park Service.
Status unclear or mixed signals
According to the National Park Service, the following animals have not been officially listed as having been extirpated – destroyed completely – from the park. Some are officially endangered. Others are considered rare or vulnerable. Some haven’t been seen in the park for decades. Some may be extinct altogether.
Rusty Patched Bumblebee – The Rusty Patched Bumblebee – so named for a red spot on its abdomen – is on the Endangered Species List. According to our research, an RPB hasn’t been seen in the park since 2001. Still, as of 2022, it was listed as among the threatened or endangered species of the park not extirpated.
Green Salamander – According to a National Parks Service article, the only known sighting of this species was at the base of Mt. LeConte in 1929. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency lists them as uncommon in Tennessee, adding they like cliffs and rocky areas. They are most likely to be seen in the Cumberland Plateau area. However, a 2016 NPS checklist of amphibians in the park lists the Green Salamander. Aneides Aeneus – Green Salamander – is right there along with the other residents of the Smokies, aka the Salamander Capitol of the World. The park service does list the Eastern Hellbender, the Seepage and the Junaluska salamanders as rare or vulnerable.
Fox Squirrel – Another animal that may have been affected by the NPS’ fire suppression policies; the Fox Squirrel is the largest native tree squirrel in North America. This squirrel was included in a 2015 NPS article about animals that were “missing” from the park. However, it was also included in the park’s Mammal checklist that same year. Other articles indicate there were rare sightings of the fox squirrel in the 1940s. Because of variations in coloration, they can get confused with American Red Squirrels or Eastern Gray Squirrels, this makes sightings more complicated. Is this animal gone from the park? In any large numbers, we believe so. But if they found one in the park tomorrow, we wouldn’t be shocked.
Eastern Spotted Skunk – Included in the Missing Species article is the Eastern Spotted Skunk. However, the article notes the animal still exists in the park. It is, sadly, on the decline. There was a picture of this skunk, noted for its four to six broken stripes, after a snow in 2014. One was found struck and killed in the mountains not far from Gatlinburg in March of 2023, according to iNaturalist.com. It is also included on the NPS’ Mammals’ checklist.
Northern Pine Snake – This little guy is also listed in the Missing Species article, which reports the last known sighting of this snake in the park was circa 2000. The Northern Pine Snake is another animal whose habitat preferences don’t align with the park’s fire suppression policies. It is, however, included in a 2022 NPS article listing the 23 species of snakes that live in the park.
Will these animals ever return to the Smokies?
The Great Smoky Mountains is a massive park filled with a wide variety of species. Recognizing animals that are endangered versus animals that have disappeared is a tricky business. When animals are rare in the park, it can go years between sightings. This is complicated by species like the Fox Squirrel, the Red Cockaded Woodpecker or even the Fisher. Is it impossible for a woodpecker that lives in Eastern North Carolina to make its way to the mountains? I don’t think so. Would spotting an outlier change its extirpated status? It’s a more complicated question.
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