Wild Thing: The Lion King
Rarely seen mountain lions rule over West Texas' rocky ranges.
By Emily Moskal
With the widest distribution of any wild cat from Canada to South America, it’s surprising how little we know about mountain lions in Texas. What we do know comes largely from western states, where the cat is commonly classified as a game animal.
Mountain lions inhabit isolated pockets of the western U.S., commonly around the Rocky Mountains, as well as Canada and much of Mexico. Although there are records of mountain lion sightings from every Texas county (except a few in the northernmost Panhandle counties), these regal creatures aren’t commonly encountered by humans.
After a roughly 100-year decline, mountain lions were primarily restricted to the western states; the eastern cougar population was declared extinct in 2011. One population remained in southern Florida, though so small it’s considered endangered. However, some studies suggest that mountain lions may be recolonizing parts of their historical
range in the East.
The mountain lion is one of the two largest predators remaining in Texas. While black bears have managed to make a comeback during the last 50 years in Texas, jaguars, wolves and grizzly bears have all been eradicated from the state.
“That’s what I find most fascinating about the cats,” says TPWD mammalogist Jonah Evans. “While all the other large predators were wiped out, mountain lions managed to hold on. Mountain lions have been here the whole time.”
They’re incredibly secretive, highly resourceful and adaptable, Evans says. Mountain lions managed to fall under the radar and find refuge mostly in the remote, rocky regions of West Texas.
Though more common in East Texas before the 1900s, many “mountain lion sightings” today aren’t actually mountain lions.
More than 250 mountain lion sightings have been reported to TPWD since 2011 from all over the state — many from East Texas. Photos frequently show these creatures to be large housecats or bobcats. Sometimes the “cats” are similarly sized, tawny-colored deer; the mistaken identity could be behind the origin of the word cougar, derived from a term used by the South American Tupi tribe meaning “false deer.”
Around 100,000 mountain lions were killed or captured during heavy hunting in the 1800s and early 1900s, but in all that interaction, a black (melanistic) lion was never found. Yet, Evans says, 20 percent of mountain lion reports from East Texas are of big, black cats.
“We get reports of ‘black panthers’ all the time,” Evans says. It’s likely that the dim, woody pine forests and the cat’s secretive nature influence these claims.
The paradox of the mystical, mysterious mountain lion: they’re seen where they aren’t and they’re not seen where they are. Go figure.
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