Mountain Lions through wildflowers
 

Source: ©DLILLC/Corbis
 

Topics of Interest:

  1. Project Goals
  2. Classification in Texas
  3. Importance of Mountain Lion
  4. What is it for me?
  5. Texas - Historical Overview
  6. Texas - Current Status
  7. Our Solution
  8. Common Misconceptions
  9. Distribution
  10. Description
  11. Behavior
  12. Mountain Lions and People
  13. Volunteer Opportunities
  14. References

 
 

 

- Common Misconceptions about Texas Mountain Lions

This section will cover the following misconceptions:

  1. The Texas Mountain Lion population is stable and increasing because more people are seeing them.
  2. Mountain Lions in Texas are expanding their range.
  3. Harvest data indicate an increase in Mountain Lions being killed, which must mean the population is increasing.
  4. If we don’t control the lion population, lions will over-populate.
  5. Mountain Lions in Texas are endangered or extinct.
  6. Change in landownership decreases pressure on the Mountain Lion population, and fewer people are now killing the cats.
  7. If I have Mountain Lions on my land, they will kill all the deer.
  8. Mountain Lions have no effect on livestock.
  9. Mountain Lion signs on a carcass mean Mountain Lion predation.
  10. Mountain Lions pose a risk to children and pets.
  11. All landowners want predator control and believe “a good Lion is a dead Lion”.
  12. Mountain Lions are a threat to the survival of the Texas desert bighorn sheep populations.
  13. Black Panthers exist [in Texas].

 

1. The Texas Mountain Lion population is stable and increasing because humans are seeing more Mountain Lions’ signs than ever before.

As is indicated in “Historical Overview – Texas,” since the 1960’s, after a period of intense predator control methods and the total elimination of Wolves, Jaguars, Jaguarondi, and Brown Bears, a relief in federally sponsored programs for the killing of predators in the US occurred.

Since the 1960's the number of Mountain Lions in Texas has increased, especially as a result of Mountain Lion movement from Mexico in the Western Texas-Mexico border.

This increase in number has resulted in private, local and federal sponsored efforts to target predators although not to the extent of that prior to 1960's. In addition, in the past 12 years Texas has experienced drought conditions, which directly affect deer abundance. Prey abundance has a delayed but direct effect on the predator (Mountain Lion) population.

Despite imported herbivores ("exotics"), landowner distribution of water sources, and increased number of land ownership not targeting the killing of Mountain Lions in Texas, the species is still occurring in low numbers in our state.

Based on scientific studies conducted in the 1990's (Harveson 1997, Guzman 1998) that analyzed the population dynamics of Mountain Lions in Texas we can conclude that Mountain Lions in Texas are experiencing low survival rate and the population is unstable (see “Current Status”).

We believe that replicating these types of studies will show similar trends.

Future studies may also support the assumption that the composition of the Texas Mountain Lion population is heavily dependent on immigration of Mountain Lions from Mexico and any activity on the Mexican border targeting Mountain Lions will directly affect the Texas Mountain Lion Population.

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2. The Texas Mountain Lion population is expanding its range.

Based on the location (by county) where Mountain Lions were reported to be killed (USDA Wildlife Services), during the past 27 years, there is no indication the Texas Mountain Lion population has been expanding its range (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Mountain Lion harvest locations - USDA Wildlife Services (1980 – 2006)

Mountain Lion Harvest Locations - Texas

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3. Harvest data indicates an increase in Mountain Lions being killed, which must mean the population is increasing.

Harvest data (number of Mountain Lions killed by people per year) are a poor indicator for population trends (population increasing or decreasing). No other state where Mountain Lions are located uses harvest data to learn about the Mountain Lion population and certainly does not use these data as the only indicator to evaluate status of the Mountain Lion population. 

Biologists do not use number of killed Mountain Lions as an indicator because the number of Mountain Lions killed is more directly related to the effort that trappers or effort hunters/trappers put into their activities.  Number of killed Mountain Lions is also related to the number of trappers, traps and hunters attempting to trap and hunt the Mountain Lion.

The graph (Figure 5) illustrates Mountain Lion harvest records as reported by the USDA Wildlife Services and TPWD, independently. 

The data published by TPWD are unreliable because gathering methods were inconsistent throughout the study/collection years (i.e., some years voluntary gathering of information was high, some years it was nonexistent).

Figure 5:  Reported Mountain Lion killing by USDA Wildlife Services and TPWD (1983 – 2006)

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4. If we don’t control the lion population lions will over-populate.

Mountain lions are a self-regulating species.  Unlike prey species (herbivores such as deer that are regulated by predators that keep their number in check) top predators, such as Mountain Lions, control their own numbers by keeping and guarding territories and not allowing other lions to occupy the same area.  Adult, resident Mountain Lions kill other Mountain Lions that try and enter their territory, and transient lions do not remain in another Mountain Lion’s territory. 

Females that do not find an empty territory do not reproduce. 

Killing a resident lion will only open an empty territory for other lions and at least temporarily, increase the number of lions in that area, until one establishes a territory. 

Mountain lions will reproduce as long as there are availability of resources such as empty territory, food and water; then reproduction will slow down, lions will control the number of other lions present and the population will stabilize if we allow the population to regulate itself.

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5. Mountain Lions in Texas are endangered or extinct.

Due to lack of information, it is impossible to determine the current status of the Mountain Lion population in the state of Texas.  The Texas Mountain Lion population, despite heavy killing, is assumed to exist due to immigration from Mexico. According to Figure 4, the Texas Mountain Lion population is restricted to those counties located along the Texas-Mexico border.

In 2005, Mountain Lions were classified as imperiled in the state of Texas by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department due to “rarity due to very restricted range, very few populations (often 20 or fewer), steep declines, or other factors making it [Mountain Lion] very vulnerable to extirpation from the state” (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/business/grants/wildlife/cwcs/media/IV.pdf, pages 17 and 51 of 403).

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6. Change in landownership decreases pressure on the Mountain Lion population, and fewer people are now killing the cats.

It is unknown how the change in landownership affects the number of lions being killed.  It may be true that the shift in land use and landownership freed some areas that used to control predators from controlling practices.

Unfortunately, these changes may have less effect than desired. A Mountain Lion’s home range is vast (15,000 – 50,000 acres) and overlaps more than one ranch, having home ranges that are partly on one ranch and partly on another.  Since Mountain Lions rarely share territories, there are only few cats per area. Thus, it takes only one rancher to set traps to affect adversely the population dynamics of the Mountain Lions occupying that area.

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7. If I have Mountain Lions on my land, they will kill all the deer.

Mountain Lions have co-existed with deer for thousands of years, long before humans settled the land. If the quoted statement was true, the deer would have been eradicated long before humans started settling the Americas.

The predator-prey relationship is continually evolving because predator populations fluctuate with the fluctuation and relocation of their prey and habitat.

Reduction of the deer population is affected by climate conditions as well as habitat quality on neighboring lands. Western Texas has experienced 10 to 12 years of drought (non-continuously 1995 – 2009).  The drought affected forage availability, water availability, recruitment (birth rates) and fawn survival.  As a result, the mule deer population, the main prey of lions in Western Texas, has decreased.

A landowner may find fewer deer located on the land than the previous year. This can result from a decrease in quality habitat, improvement of neighboring lands by supplementing feed or providing (additional) water sources, or a combination of these factors.

Deer may move between ranches to find more water and food. Overall, deer move within the landscape, following resources.  Not finding deer where they were found before is influenced by many factors; studies show that predation may affect the rate a prey population is trying to recover from very low numbers, but predation is not a factor in natality (birth) rate and the number of fawns being born. 

When habitat conditions improve, ewes reproduce more frequently and fawn survival increases.  Predation, regardless of its effect, will not prevent a population from increasing. 

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8.  Mountain Lions have no effect on livestock.

Documentation indicates that Mountain Lions have minimal effect on the mortality of cattle in Texas (less that 2% of a Mountain Lion’s diet).
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However, Mountain Lions have a greater impact on sheep and goat mortalities via multiple kills in a single incident. The Mountain Lions are responding to the multiple stimuli of many sheep and goats, the inability of  the sheep and goats to escape efficiently, their habitat which is usually flat terrain with no escape routes and their erratic behavior during a predator attack. 

Mountain Lions may kill several sheep and goats but only feed on one or two. This behavior is a normal “predator-prey” response (watch your household cat who will chase almost any small animal that enters your house - not for food, but for the thrill of the chase). Predators respond to many stimuli, and “the chase” provides them with a separate but strong satisfaction response, different from that of mating, feeding or grooming.

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9.  Mountain Lion signs on a carcass mean Mountain Lion predation.

As well as excellent hunters, Mountain Lions are also scavengers. They will feed on dead animals such as deer or livestock that they (Mountain Lions) did not kill. Also, they may chase away or even kill other predators such as coyotes and other Mountain Lions to get to a meal.

Many livestock and deer deaths are caused by factors other than Mountain Lion predation, but Mountain Lions continue to be blamed. 

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10.  Mountain Lions pose a risk to children and pets.

Mountain Lions are shy and elusive animals.  They do not view people as prey and instinctively avoid human contact, presence and activities. In North America, during the past 113 years, only 16 fatal attacks on humans by Mountain Lions have been recorded (Beier, 1991; Cougar Management Guidelines Working Group, 2005). Considering the millions of people and the thousands of Mountain Lions co-existing in the same habitat, this number of mortalities is extremely small.

As a result of Mountain Lion’s loss of habitat (human population increase, land being developed, more humans are visiting Mountain Lion country), human- Mountain Lion encounters may become more frequent.

When living or visiting known or potential Mountain Lion habitat/country, several precautions should be taken. To learn more CLICK HERE.

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11.  All landowners want predator control and believe “a good Lion is a dead Lion”.

Landowners vary in their attitudes toward everything, including predators. Most people who kill Mountain Lions believe that having these cats on their land will result in some type of harm to them physically (mostly people who have grown up in urban areas) or damage to their property.

The attitude of hunters toward predators is even stronger. Some hunters and trappers are opportunistic and will attempt to kill a Mountain Lion if one is seen but others value and respect this amazing predator and support its conservation.

Many landowners also recognize the value and ecological contribution made by Mountain Lions. As a top predator, the Mountain Lion’s primary prey is deer (in Texas), but they will also hunt feral hogs, javelina and porcupines. Mountain lions will kill or chase away competing lions and coyotes, keeping their numbers regulated.  By hunting deer and other prey species, Mountain Lions help control and regulate these species from overpopulating and overgrazing. Mountain Lions also assist in the balance of other predators (including coyotes and bobcats) which contribute to the conservation of smaller mammals, birds and reptiles.

Some landowner objections to Mountain Lion conservation have less to do with the Mountain Lions and more to do with property rights.  Many landowners believe that conserving Mountain Lions means involvement of the government (Texas Parks and Wildlife Department) in what they can and cannot do on their own property. Western Texas landowners particularly have many years of mistrusting of the government and its bureaucracy.

The challenge is to design a conservation plan that will support a sustainable coexistence between man and cat.  The plan will take into consideration the landowners’ economic needs while identifying those land areas and landowners willing to participate in Mountain Lion conservation.  This system may or may not include government involvement (See "Our Solution")

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12.  Mountain Lions are a threat to the survival of the Texas desert bighorn sheep populations.

Mountain Lions and bighorn sheep have evolved side by side for thousands of years before humans encroached on their habitat. Bighorn sheep have developed alarm calls, avoidance techniques and escape behavior that allow them to co-exist with Mountain Lions and also minimize losses to predation.

Mountain lions are ambush predators who use cover to hunt. As a result, Mountain Lions are usually found in areas of dense vegetation where they can move unseen until reaching their prey.

Bighorn sheep prefer open terrain where they have as much unrestricted visibility as possible. Bighorn sheep and Mountain Lion habitats, if kept in their natural state, only partially overlap.

In a 2007 a survey conducted by TPWD found that the Texas bighorn sheep population consists of more than 900 bighorn sheep. Of the two main populations counted in the survey, one is located in the Sierra Diablo area, (a meta-population consisting of subpopulations in the Sierra Diablo, Baylor and Beach mountains (Van Horn area)) and a smaller population of a few hundred sheep located in the Black Gap management area and the surrounding mountain ranges.

The main risk of predation to a bighorn sheep population lies in the reintroduction period, where only a small number of sheep is released into an unfamiliar terrain. These sheep are usually captured in “predator free” areas and, hence, are naïve to predators. The sheep are also unfamiliar with the new terrain and any potential escape routes. Additionally, they have not yet developed the “herd mentality” [i.e., individuals behave as a coherent group (herd) with a known leader and specific response behavior] that will add to their chances for survival in the wild.

Texas bighorn sheep populations are not at risk of extinction due to predation. Their number is in the hundreds and they are capable of sustaining some losses to predation just as all wild populations are.

To remove or kill predators in bighorn sheep habitat is unjustified from a biological standpoint and may actually harm the ecosystem to a greater extent than protect the bighorn sheep.

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13.  Black Panthers exist [in Texas].

Black Mountain Lions (panthers) do not exist. Black individuals within a species are a result of a condition called Melanism, the over-expression of the pigment Melanin in the skin that creates the dark skin color. Some species of cats, such as the Jaguar and the African Leopard, exhibit Melanism. Mountain Lions, however, do not.

Jaguars are the only large cat species in North America that may exhibit Melanism.

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