Mountain Lions in Texas by Jonah Evans

Back when the majority of landowners were ranchers and many livelihoods depended on livestock production, it is understandable that large carnivores were difficult to tolerate. However, as the demographics of Texas shifted from rural to urban and as fewer landowners relied on their property for profit, efforts to eradicate predators subsided. Mountain lions (also called puma, panther, and cougar) managed to survive the era of persecution primarily in remote areas of the western and southern parts of the state. That they were able to persist while the other large carnivores did not is testament in part to their stealth and incredible adaptability.

Mountain lions are specialized carnivores, but can eat a surprising variety of prey. While they tend to specialize on deer, they also eat peccary, feral pigs, raccoons, porcupines, coyotes, and anything else they can. This adaptability enables them to have the largest distribution of any land mammal in the western hemisphere. They are found from Canada to southern Chile and Argentina and are able to live in deserts, mountains, jungles, and grasslands. Despite this impressive distribution, they currently inhabit a fraction of their original range. Once found across all of the lower 48 states, now generally only the western third of the U.S. contains viable mountain lion populations.

In the western U.S., large mountainous tracts of public land and regulated hunting have contributed to fairly stable mountain lion populations. Today, hunting is permitted in every state where a viable lion population exists except California, where a public referendum prohibited all mountain lion harvest.

Although mountain lions still subsist in west and south Texas, the actual status of Texas' lion populations is not well known. Surveys for mountain lions are exceedingly difficult; attempting to count one of America's most elusive carnivores as it roams hundreds of square miles in remote deserts and mountains is no easy task. Small research budgets and limited access to private lands further complicate efforts to estimate mountain lion numbers. Some western states use mandatory harvest reporting to roughly estimate populations. In Texas, a few hunters and trappers voluntarily submit harvest reports, but most do not, making the number of hunted lions almost a complete mystery.

Recent genetic studies suggest that Texas has two distinct populations of mountain lions: a more robust west Texas population, and a possibly declining south Texas population. Genetic flow between these populations appears to be very limited. This may be an indication that very few lions exist between these populations.
While the core population centers are in west and south Texas, mountain lions periodically make their way into more the populated central and eastern portions of the state. These lions rarely threaten humans or livestock, but sightings often frighten those not accustomed to having a large predator in their back yards.

Sighting a mountain lion in the wild is a rare event that few people get to experience. TPWD receives numerous reports of lion sightings each week, but many are difficult or impossible to confirm. A large number of the callers report seeing a "black panther", which leaves biologists in the awkward position of explaining that there has never been a proven case of a melanistic (black form) of a mountain lion. Any large black cats seen in Texas could only be escaped melanistic leopards or jaguars. However, it is unlikely that the large number of sightings of "black panthers" in Texas signifies a pandemic of escaped exotic felines. While the natural coat of an adult mountain lion is a rich tan color, they can appear very dark when in shadows or in low light. Possibly this accounts for the majority of Texas's "black panthers". Many dogs are also mistaken as mountain lions at a distance or in poor light. In contrast with dogs, mountain lions have a long body, a very long drooping tail, and a small head and ears.

While mountain lions can be dangerous and attacks on people do happen, they are extremely rare. There are just 20 confirmed fatal lion attacks on humans from 1890-2011. Eleven of these happened since 1979. Compare this to the 538 human deaths from domestic dogs from 1979-2011. If you do have a chance encounter with a mountain lion, and it displays aggressive behavior (stalking, crouching, etc.) make an effort to appear large and unafraid. If you are with other people, gather in a group. Put all children behind you. Do not run. Wave your arms, yell, and throw objects. Pick up a stick or other improvised weapon and if attacked, fight back. The victims of most fatal mountain lion attacks are children, so if you're hiking in lion country be sure to keep kids in sight. Many other lion attack victims are runners. Avoid running in lion country, especially at dawn and dusk.

Despite the potential danger mountain lions present to people and livestock, public perception in Texas is relatively high. A recent survey found that 84 percent of respondents believed mountain lions were an essential part of nature and that 74 percent believed efforts should be made to ensure their survival in Texas. The high support for mountain lions signifies just how much Texas has changed since the early years of predator eradication.

With the strong public perception of mountain lions in Texas, it is increasingly important that biologists have reliable population data. Making effective efforts to ensure the continued survival of mountain lions in Texas requires accurate information and TPWD is currently investigating an innovative fecal genetic technique and footprint identification technique that may help. If successful, these methods could finally provide an efficient and effective way to monitor one Texas' most elusive carnivores.

Jonah Evans is a Diversity Biologist working in the Alpine area.

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