Mountain Lions in Texas and Michigan
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, July 2003, © 2004
A Mountain Lion crouches not far from the shores of Thunder Bay in northeastern Michigan. Its golden eyes spark with menace. The black-tipped ears and tail signal alertness. This is a creature of lethal power and beauty, but no deer need bolt in terror, because it is a work of skillful taxidermy displayed at the Besser Museum in the Lake Huron port of Alpena. Why is this remarkable? The reality is that the last verified wild member of this species was seen in Michigan in 1906!
The big feline, which weighs up to 150 or more pounds and can measure eight feet from nose to tail, was once the most widely distributed of any American mammal, spread across the continent from sea to sea and from south of the tundra to the ends of Latin America. This is the puma, cougar, panther or painter of folk tales which frightened the pioneers with its screams in the night and preyed on livestock and the occasional human. Suffering the same fate as the wolf, it has been shot, poisoned and trapped under a bounty system that reduced its range to parts of the West and Florida.
Oh, but are we so sure it has become a ghost species? In recent years, sightings have come from both the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan, the woods of Minnesota, a few eastern states...and even Ottawa, Ontario! Some claim that in Michigan specimens have been shot and that photos exist...one of a mother and her two cubs. Rumors prevail that there are ten to twenty in the Upper Peninsula, and not 40 miles from our property in the northeastern Lower Peninsula, people have reported seeing lions lope across the road at night in front of their cars.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is skeptical, questionng the validity of observations and attributing them to escaped pets or misidentification of other mammals such as big dogs like Golden Retrievers, bobcats or even large house cats, very, very, large housecats. Glimpses in the night are always unreliable, especially when people want to see something rare, a common human desire. Also, the disgraceful but growing trade in wild and exotic pets lends some credence to the sightings.
The MDNR cautions that these would be protected animals, and trapping or shooting is illegal. In Texas, as of the end of 2002, there is no such protection. Mountain Lions can be taken by any means without penalties, presumably because they are more common, especially in the Trans-Pecos, the Hill Country and the brushlands of South Texas. Another reason is that lions compete with deer hunters.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife's Website, a Mountain Lion Project of the mid-l990's studied the species in a 1182-square mile area in Duval, LaSalle, Webb and McMullen Counties. Cats were trapped live on ranches to determine their diet and genetic health. One result was that biologists learned the deer herd was under no threat from overkill; the lions apparently are not really rivals of their human counterparts. They share the wealth. The pumas have even been known to space themselves when other cats come into an area to avoid depleting the food bank, perhaps driven in part by their solitary nature. They do live alone until the time of their polygamous mating practices. By the way, several states such as California, Texas and Michigan have Mountain Lion preservation groups to study and educate the public about the species.
Here in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, there are still sporadic sightings, even from people-friendly places like Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. This is hard to believe because of the growth in the Valley. Ranchers to the north are far more likely to spot lions in the brush country, but they are usually reluctant to make public their observations. They have their reasons.
A recent book, "Cougar Attacks: Encounters of the Worst Kind," by Kathy Etling, takes a somewhat balanced view of the problem. The hunting technique of this creature is efficient, gruesome but typical of the big felines like Cheetah, Jaguar, Leopard and African Lion. It stalks its prey to within at least 50 yards, closing in a lightning rush and then leaping onto the target's back, biting at the base of the skull to crush the neck. Ms. Etling describes over 200 attacks on humans, almost 50 of them fatal, but she presents a case for the value of the cat as a wonder of the natural world. Mountain hikers in California might disagree. However, she relates ways to avoid being panther prey. To paraprase:
1. Do not hike alone.
2. Do not approach the cute kitty.
3. Do not flee.
4. Throw stuff
Unfortunately, I have never seen a Mountain Lion in the wild either in Michigan or Texas. Although stuffed animals are fine teaching devices to impart an appreciation of nature, they fall short of experiencing a breathing, moving creature. If given the choice, I would rather see one in the woods and not behind glass, unless it is a windshield. You hope you could distinguish between a tawny lion and a yellow Labrador Retriever, but in that one dark, fleeting moment, it might be harder than you think.