Lynn Burkhead — Mountain lion sightings not impossible in Texomaland

Herald Democrat
While mountain lions aren't seen very often, they are more common across the state of Texas than many would think. And that includes the Texomaland region, where the species has been seen on occasion including here in Grayson County. Last weekend, a variety of news reports indicate that a Hunt County deer hunter legally harvested a mountain lion while hunting near Celeste.

By now, you’ve probably heard that a 160-pound mountain lion was killed last weekend by a deer hunter in Hunt County.

The big lion (Puma concolor) was taken legally by a licensed hunter chasing whitetails on private land a few miles west of Celeste according to Hunt County game warden Gary Miller, Jr. in a story posted by the Dallas Morning News.

“The cat came up to his deer feeder,” said Miller in the online version of the DMN story. “He was 6-feet long from the tip of his tail to his head.”

While Miller patrols Hunt County, it was actually former Grayson County and current Fannin County game warden Randolph McGee — of Lone Star Law television show fame — that responded to the initial call when the hunter phoned in a report to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Miller told the MyParisTexas.com website that McGee responded to the call and verified that the big cat was taken legally and wasn’t someone’s pet or an exotic that had escaped into the wild.

“It was crazy to see something so elusive and actually put your hands on one that’s been taken,” McGee said in the Internet news report. “They are a magnificent animal. The man was a licensed Texas hunter who saw the mountain lion when it walked into his path around 4:30 p.m. Saturday.”

Native to Texas with several regions supporting viable populations, mountain lions are considered a nongame species in the state. Meaning that there are no closed seasons, bag limits or possession limits. As long as a hunter has a valid license, mountain lions may be hunted at any time by any lawful means or methods on private property according to TPWD’s website.

And that includes the lion taken last weekend, a critter that could be the same one spotted a few weeks ago not far from the Rowlett and Princeton areas. In the Dallas Morning News story, TPWD officials speculate that the lion might be the same one spotted earlier, but they can’t be 100% sure.

Certainly, the big cats have been in the news recently, both from the reports just northeast of Dallas and from a report of a possible lethal mountain lion attack to the west of Fort Worth.

In the latter story, USA Today and other news outlets reported on Dec. 7, 2020 that the cause of death for a man named Christopher Allen Whiteley, who disappeared in a wooded area near Lipan, was due to a wild animal attack, possibly from a mountain lion.

But after examining the scene, TPWD experts disputed the preliminary findings from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner. TPWD’s game wardens and biologists stated that their investigation found no evidence of a predatory mountain lion attack, something that a U.S. Department of Agricultural Wildlife Services trapper apparently agreed with according to news reports.

Certainly, TPWD has history and numbers on their side in the possible mountain lion attack case. According to a 2008 TPWD publication (Mountain Lions in Texas), only four mountain lion attacks on humans had been reported from 1980 to 2008, all of them in remote areas of West Texas.

While attacks are rare, and confirmed mountain lion sightings as well, the reclusive species is far more common in the Lone Star State than many might assume. In its 2008 publication, TPWD noted that mountain lion sightings have occurred in all 254 counties across the state along with mountain lion mortality reports coming from 67 counties from 1983 to 2005.

More recently, a look at a mountain lion sighting map on the TPWD website (www.tpwd.texas.gov) shows reports of cougars in at least 40 Texas counties from 2009 until 2019. Most of those are in the rugged mountains of the Trans Pecos region, the canyonlands of the Panhandle, the Balcones Escarpment region in the Hill Country, and in the brush country of South Texas.

In fact, Bowhunter magazine featured a story a number of years ago about a bowhunter chasing whitetails at a big South Texas deer camp, only to end up arrowing a sizable mountain lion that wandered by his tripod stand one time too many.

From time to time, mountain lions are also occasionally seen in the Pineywoods of East Texas. In fact, the TPWD publication mentioned above and the more current online sightings map shows that lions have been reported in at least nine counties across the region.

And believe it or not, there are also occasional mountain lion sightings in several North Texas counties lying to the northwest, west and southwest of the Dallas/Fort Worth region.

There’s also one more North Texas county with a confirmed mountain lion sighting over the last 11-years…right here in Grayson County according to the TPWD map.

I’ve actually seen a game camera photo of that Grayson County mountain lion, which had its picture taken a couple of years ago near a deer feeder sitting on a piece of heavily wooded and undeveloped land. I promised the landowner I wouldn’t reveal the location, but there’s absolutely no doubt it’s a mountain lion looking towards the camera.

And a few years earlier, I saw another local game camera photo of a possible mountain lion here in Grayson County, although this one was a little tougher to confirm since a tree was between the cat and the game camera. But from everything I could tell looking at the photo, it’s a potential mountain lion wandering near a deer feeder as it scopes out the evening meal possibilities.

North of the Red River in Oklahoma, mountain lions are also occasionally reported within the Sooner State according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (www.wildlifedepartment.com).

Common in portions of the Great Plains up until the latter stages of the 19th Century, ODWC says that sightings and evidence of mountain lions in the Sooner State have been documented all the way back to 1852 when two lions were killed in the southwestern part of Oklahoma.

While confirmed cougar sightings weren’t previously recorded as often as they are now, ODWC says that in 1953, an Oklahoma State University mammalogist documented mountain lion tracks in the state’s northwestern region near Canton Lake. And in September 1984, the manager for the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge near Lawton confirmed a mountain lion on the rugged refuge land.

Since 2002, however, ODWC has maintained a confirmed mountain lion reports page on its website, a database that currently has 40 reports scattered across the state including six of those so far in 2020. Such reports come through roadkill incidents, poaching cases, livestock depredation control, and more recently, through game camera photos.

Several of those Oklahoma mountain lion sightings have actually been in the Texomaland region, with two in Atoka County (2009 and again in 2018), one in Johnston County (2019), one in Choctaw County (2019) and three in Pushmataha County (two sightings in June 2020 and another in October 2020).

While some of those reports could be the same cat wandering through the region repeatedly, it’s also possible that there could be multiple mountain lions residing in some of our local counties too — there’s just no way to really know.

Since ODWC says there are no viable populations within their state, where do the Sooner State’s mountain lions come from? The Texas Panhandle is one potential source region, as well as other spots in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains.

One famous mountain lion report in Oklahoma came in 2004 when a train engineer reported running over a mountain lion in Noble County near Red Rock, Okla. When ODWC personnel investigated the railroad kill, they discovered a young male mountain lion that had been radio collared several months earlier hundreds of miles away in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Believe it or not, other mountain lion kills (road kills, livestock depredation, and poaching incidents) have confirmed Oklahoma cougars as originally being from Colorado, South Dakota, and possibly New Mexico. And in the case of a female lion that was illegally killed in 2006 by poachers in McCurtain County — that's Broken Bow and Beaver's Bend Country in far southeastern Oklahoma — that cougar actually had DNA linked to the Pine Ridge region of western Nebraska.

In light of the McCurtain County lion referenced above, do keep in mind that unlike the state of Texas where its legal to kill a mountain lion if properly licensed, it’s illegal to harvest a mountain lion north of the Red River in Oklahoma where a closed season has been in place since 1957.

The bottom line with the recent news of cougars in our part of the world is this, that these secretive cats are indeed a rare sight. But they’re still found here on occasion, so don’t be totally surprised if you see one in a secluded area early and late in the day.

Whether you want to take that critter — for what it’s worth, these big game animals can be legally hunted in more than a dozen states and their fine-grained meat is raved about by many wild chefs — is determined by personal hunting preferences and what side of the Red River you’re standing on.

But as this part of the world grows more urbanized by the day, it’s nice to know that in at least some of Texomaland’s remaining wild corners, a big cat might be lurking.

Even if your chances to see that reclusive critter are about as rare as can be. But then again, you just never know, now do you?