The Mountain Lion goes by many different names, cougar, puma, panther, painter, catamount. All of these are just different ways to refer to the same big cat—Puma concolor, the lion of one color.
Mountain Lions are native to Texas, and there is no question that we do have a healthy population of these big cats living in some parts of the state. The big question on many people’s minds, though, is are they present in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex? The answer to that question is a slightly complicated, Yes, No, and Maybe. Let me explain.
The subject of Mountain Lions comes up frequently in the discussions I have about wildlife in metroplex. Almost everyone I have spoken to has a Mountain Lion story to share. Many claim to have seen one, heard one, or to know someone who has. If all the accounts were true, then we would likely be up to our ears in urban Mountain Lions!
There appears to be a interesting psychology at work here. People REALLY want to believe they’ve seen these big cats. Mountain Lions are arguably the most exotic animal that could conceivably be observed in this part of North America. They are big, powerful, and beautiful animals. The appeal is natural and obvious.
I have had Mountain Lions on my wish list for a number of year now, and there is probably no one who would like to find them here in DFW more than I would. Still, I recognize the need for skepticism and hard evidence. Unfortunately, irrefutable proof has been lacking. Furthermore, the ubiquitousness of cameras in the hands of the public make the absence of clear and unambiguous photographs a real problem.
I typically get several reported Mountain Lion sightings each year, and I make a real effort to check out every report that seems even remotely plausible. The map below shows a number of the reported sightings that I have followed up on over the years. This map should not be interpreted to show a concentration of sightings in a particularly area. Instead, it only illustrates sightings that are close to where I live or near areas I frequent. Proximity certainly makes it more likely that I will be able to find the time to stop by and investigate.
The reports I have received over years the have been an odd mix of the possible and the improbable. Some have come from quality observers, but have been in unlikely location. Others have been made in high quality habitats, but the details of behavior or size do not add up. Some of these reports have been very compelling, but to date, none have produced conclusive or incontrovertible evidence. Most are probably best explained as misidentified Bobcats or some other medium-sized mammal like a Coyote or a deer.
It is well documented that people are notoriously bad witnesses by our very nature. We all have a propensity to see what we expect to see, and to remember details in a way that is influenced by our life experiences and prejudices. It is not hard to imagine other native animals—particularly when viewed fleetingly through brush or in poor light—being misidentified as something much more exotic and exciting. Below is a little questionnaire I use as a way to broach the particulars with some of the people who report sightings to me.
Another interesting aspect of the Mountain Lion question in North Texas—and all across the country for that matter—are the large numbers of Black Panther sighting that are reported each year. This is a fascinating phenomenon because Black Panthers simply do not exist in the United States. There is no native animal that fits the description of a Black Panther.
Black Panthers—where they do exits—are actually the rare melanistic forms of Jaguars and Leopards. These big cats can be dark enough that their spots become hard to notice at first glance. The problem is that Leopards are native to Asia and Africa, and Jaguars live in South and Central America. Jaguars seldom roam north of the border with Mexico, allowing for only the very occasional sighting of individual Jaguars along our southern border, but there is not a resident population of these cats living anywhere inside the United States.
So, Black Panthers seen in the United States are not likely Leopards or Jaguars. That leaves the Mountain Lion as the sole remaining candidate. But there are no documented case of melanism in these cats—black Mountain Lions simply do not exist.
If Black Panthers are not Leopards, Jaguars, or Mountain Lions, then what are they? From the looks of things they are nothing more than a psychological phenomenon—a manifestation of the very human desire to see something unusual and exciting. We all have the need for a good story to tell.
Prudence demands that we remain highly skeptical of Black Panther encounters, but Mountain Lion sightings are not as easy to dismiss. When considering the question of their presence in the metroplex one of the first things that must be addressed is whether or not there are adequate resources to support a population of Mountain Lions—or even a single big cat for that matter.
There are a few things that Mountain Lions will absolutely require in order to survive for any extended period of time in a certain area. They will need room to establish territories—lots of it. They will need an ample supply of medium sized game animals to feed on. And they will need a certain degree of seclusion and privacy.
The good news is that there are a number of places in the metroplex that have enough game to support a Mountain Lion or two. White-tailed Deer and Feral Hogs—two of the Mountain Lion’s favorites—have migrated into some of the undeveloped land around the city, and in some cases even followed our greenbelts into the suburbs and the city itself. Unfortunately, places like these still remain very limited in size and scope.
We are left with the questions of whether there is enough room in the metroplex for individual Mountain Lions to establish home territories, and also if there is enough seclusion in these places to support the elusive cat’s need for retreat and privacy—two questions that go hand in hand.
Mountain Lions typically defend huge territories in the wild. Females will often stake out anywhere from 30 to 200 square miles as their home range. Males require even larger territories—ranging from around 60 to 300 square miles on average.
The territories of female Mountain Lions will often overlap with those of other females. That factor can allow for a little compression of the space required to support multiple female cats. The territories of male lions, on the other hand, must be separate and distinct from each other. They typically encompass the territories of several female cats—which explains their generally larger size—but there can be absolutely no overlap with another male’s home range.
What this means is that you need a tremendous amount of land to support multiple male cats. This city park or that city park simply will not meet the territorial needs of these lions. Below is a map overlain with typical small and large territory requirements for both male and female Mountain Lions. These shapes do not represent actual territories, only the number of square miles that are required to support a typical home range.
The geometric nature of the outlines above do not represent realistic territory shapes either. Certainly Mountain Lions defend much more organically defined territories. What this map should illustrate though, is just how difficult it would be for a lion to carve out an adequate home range in the DFW metroplex. Perhaps one or two cats around the fringes of the metroplex would be possible, but anything more is hard to imagine.
This map also does a good job of illustrating the difficulty a Mountain Lion would encounter trying to secure an adequate amount of seclusion in North Texas. Mountain Lions do not like people, and people do not like Mountain Lions. These big cats are like ghosts, and they are rarely seen even in places where they are numerous. As you can see from this map, there are not many places in or around Dallas or Fort Worth where these big cats could escape the presence of people for very long.
I my opinion, the need for large home territories makes it very unlikely that we have many—if any—resident Mountain Lions in the Dallas/Fort Worth Area. But that does not mean that we never have any of the big cats here. The question is where do they come from?
There is a well documented and healthy population of resident Mountain Lions living in the far reaches of southwest Texas. In addition to these cats, there is also some talk of a small population of resident lions in and around the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. If so, it is conceivable that we get a few cats from there from time to time.
In order for any of these cats to reach the DFW metroplex there must be some kind of a mechanism in place that will encourage them to roam out of their established range and into new lands. In Texas these cats will need to be motivated to travel great distances. As it turns out, there is just such a mechanism.
When young male Mountain Lions reach sexual maturity, they will almost certainly come into conflict with the adult male who’s territory encompasses that of their mother. This dominate male lion will not long tolerate rivals in his home range, and he will work to drive younger males away. Fights can ensue, and the young, inexperienced males are usually at a decided disadvantage. Deaths can result.
Young males that are not killed will roam far and wide searching for a territory to call their own. A key feature of any new potential homeland will be the presence of an uncontested female lion who can serve as a potential mate. In fact, a male Mountain Lion will likely continue to wander until he finds just such a lioness. This then is the primary driving force that would encourage cats to roam as far as the metroplex or even further.
If a young adult male flees to the east or northeast when he is driven from his home, then he will almost certainly not encounter a female lion along the way, and his search will never end. He will continue on for the rest of his life in quest of a mate that simply does not exist. Along the way, these young males will have to run a gauntlet of protective ranchers, opportunistic hunters, and dangerous roads on their way to the metroplex. Few will survive the journey.
With this scenario it is not hard to imagine a big cat making it all the way to the outskirts of DFW, and maybe even following resident deer or Feral Hogs along the Trinity River into the very heart of the metroplex. But there will be no female cats in the city and lots of human activity. I believe the inclination would be for the cat to pass on through and continue on their journey.
So does this scenario actually occur? Evidence would suggest that it does. The map below is from a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department publication illustrating documented Mountain Lion moralities at the county level for the years 1983 through 2005. More information regarding the sex, age, and number of the cats found outside southwest Texas would be need to verify absolutely, but the possibility is clearly illustrated here. And while no cats have been documented here in the metroplex, you can see that they have been found very, very close by.
This information is almost ten years out of date, which is unfortunate. There seems to be some kind of political motivation for being mysterious about these big cats in Texas and in other states as well. Mountain Lions and the public—especially where children, pets, and livestock are concerned—quickly becomes a very complicated issue.
If we ever do get Mountain Lions in the metroplex, then it seems likely that they will be young, transient males that are simply passing through. That would mean that sometimes we will have a big cat here in the North Texas and at other times we won’t. I think it is safe to assume that most of the time the metroplex is essentially Mountain Lion free.
The wildcard in all of this is the possibility of released exotics—Mountain Lions and other big cats that were kept captive and then for some reason or the other turned loose. For years the laws in Texas concerning the private ownership of exotic animals have been very liberal. From what I understand, keeping Mountain Lions and other big cats—Tigers, Leopards, Jaguars, Lions—occurs to a surprising degree.
Big cats in particular can be difficult and expensive to care for. When it becomes too burdensome to provide adequate care, it is not unheard of for irresponsible owners to simply turn their charges loose. This factor puts a reported sighting of any kind of big cat within the realm of the possible. Its hard to say just how often something like this might happen, but it always must be considered a possibility.
As I mentioned earlier, I have personally checked on a number of reported sightings myself. None of these have produced conclusive evidence for a Mountain Lion. Most appear to be misidentifications of Bobcats. But there was one case that is decidedly more compelling than the others. This one has been much more difficult for me to dismiss.
In this case, I received a report of a Mountain Lion encounter near an isolated pond in northwest Collin County. The observation took place late in the afternoon of a warm day in May. The description provided to me indicated a large cat with a unmistakable long tail. The alleged lion was observed on several different occasions as it made its way around the perimeter of the pond. Eventually, the nervous observer decided discretion was the better part of valor, and she left for home.
This spot was not what I would consider prime habitat for Mountain Lions in the metroplex. Still, this was in a relatively undeveloped part of the county and there were just enough greenbelts leading in to allow for the possibility. This fact combined with the credible account given to me by the observer convinced me to go out and have a look.
Just a few days after I received the report, I stopped by the property and gave the area a thorough once over. The terrain at this location was rocky and covered in a dry granular dirt. There were only a few spots—where water recently flowed—that were good for recording clear track impressions.
I spent several hours combing the perimeter of the pond and the trails leading to it. There was no sign of deer or hog activity, which hurt the case for a lion a bit, in my opinion. I found several Coyote tracks and a few dog tracks, but nothing that resembled a feline track.
The sun was beginning to get low in the sky when I finally made my way around the low ground on the north side of the pond. There I found a little used dirt road running around the perimeter of a farmer’s field. This road was also covered in the same dry, granular soil that was typical of the area—this trail would record tracks, but they would be poor and indistinct impressions at best.
It wasn’t long after I began following the road that I noticed the first unusual track. I was struck by the size of the impression and dismissed as a fluke at first. But then I noticed another and then another. This got my attention. I pulled out my tracking ruler and took a couple of pictures.
The track was over 5 inches long and more than 4 inches wide. That is a big track. A little over twelve inches further on there was another equally large impression. The tracks were laid down in pairs with each set about four feet away from the previous two. See the pictures below.
In the end, the best that can be said for these tracks is that they are inconclusive. Some are round like feline tracks, but others more closely resemble canine tracks in general shape. Regardless, they are extremely large for dog tracks. They are even pretty big for Mountain Lion tracks, which are typically around 3 inches long by 3 1/2 inches wide. All that can be said for certain about these impressions is that they indicate that a very large mammalian predator ran down this road just a day or two before I visited.
These tracks make for a compelling case, but there is even better evidence that Mountain Lions may occasionally roam into the Metroplex. In late October a trail camera near Glen Rose (just southwest of Fort Worth) recorded the picture below of a young male Mountain Lion as it investigated a deer feeder.
This recording was posted to iNaturalist, and the details can be viewed here: Puma (Puma concolor) observed by sbkucera on October 23, 2014
All indications suggest that this is the real deal. An actual Mountain Lion sighting approximately 40 mile from downtown Fort Worth. The habitat is appropriate, there is an adequate amount of game and seclusion. The observer is reliable, and the cat is a young male as expected.
Unfortunately, the story of this big cat did not end well. Last week this lion was shot by a deer hunter just a few miles from where his picture was first recorded. The story is told here: Glen Rose Hunter Harvests Mountain Lion
In Texas, if you have a hunting license then it is legal to kill Mountain Lions without restrictions. Mountain Lions are considered a non-game species, and there is no set hunting season and there are no bag limits. They can be killed on sight. Any time and anywhere.
I am sure that the actual presence Mountain Lions poses many challenging issues. Ranchers and farmers have a need to protect their livestock from predation. People have the right to protect their pets, children, and their own personal safety from Mountain Lions if necessary. It is not clear to me how likely it is that these cats will cause problems when they are in a particular area. But things seem to be a little out of balance when one guy can take a Mountain Lion like this one away from the rest of us simply because it stepped in front of his gun.
Whether we like it or not Mountain Lions may soon be part of the equation in North Texas. These big cats appear to be poised to begin expanding their range out of far southwest Texas. The same is true in other parts of the country as well. Historically Mountain Lions ranged all across North America. They are able to survive in many different types of habitats, including those surrounding Dallas/Fort Worth.
Up until about 100 years ago it would not be unexpected to encounter a Mountain Lion right here in North Texas. The question is are they here now? The answer—as you now know—is a not so simple, Yes, No, and Maybe. If you happen to see one, please drop me a line!
Mountain Lion Resources:
- Mountain Lions in Texas
- A Field Guide to Texas Mountain Lions
- Puma Identification Guide
- Puma Field Guide
Update March 3, 2018 – A new report of a roadkill Mountain Lion north of Mineral Wells (50 miles west of Fort Worth) appears to be legitimate. The killed lion fits the profile of a transient male wandering out of west Texas. Cougars roaming out of the Trans-Pecos face a grueling gauntlet of rifles and roads and unfamiliar territory. This one’s luck ran out in Mineral Wells. Read the Dallas Morning News article covering the occurrence here: