MIKE LEGGETT: OUTDOORS
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Pity the poor mountain lion.
He's loved and hated, either a mega-predator that's a symbol of wild Texas or a remorseless haint, a killer of livestock and a danger to kids and pets.
Mountain lion encounters are on the rise as more people encroach on the animals' natural habitat. Texas does not classify the lions as game animals.
We can't even decide on his name. He's called lion, puma, cougar, catamount, panther, leon. He's been extirpated from much of his traditional range, pushed into deeper, darker, more remote habitat by humans eager to live or run livestock on the ground he once walked.
Despite the twisted love affair we have with the big cats, lions basically are doing well through much of the western United States and Canada.
The Texas population has been stable or increasing for about 100 years, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which continues to study mountain lions and to develop methods for tracking their numbers.
"We don't have an exact estimate of their numbers; no state does," said John Young, a mammologist with the Wildlife Diversity branch at Texas Parks and Wildlife. "We look at (annual) harvest data as one measure, and we're looking at lion genetics to get an effective size of a population by determining the genetic differences within a population."
Young said Texas has two distinct populations of lions in the south and west, which don't share much DNA. Genetic work on those populations run through computer models indicates a statewide breeding population of as many as 5,600 adult animals. That number doesn't include lions too young or too old to breed.
Texas doesn't classify mountain lions as game animals, and thus has no closed seasons or restrictions on killing them.
Many landowners, especially in West Texas, routinely call trappers and hunters to take lions they see or to track them after they've discovered lion signs on their ranches. That leads to occasional attempts to persuade Texas Parks and Wildlife officials to grant the cats game animal status and to impose some kind of harvest restrictions or seasons.
Orie Gilad is director of the research and conservation program with Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Kendalia, just west of Canyon Lake.
She recently posted a position statement online about the status of lions in Texas, and she will meet with Young and other Parks and Wildlife staff this week. Gilad believes the elusive nature of lions, along with landowners' emphasis on controlling their population, means they need to be studied more if not protected by new laws or regulations.
"We don't have any information about mountain lions," said Gilad, who holds a doctorate from Texas A&M and has researched lions in Texas. "We're not out there to tell people what they can do. We want to come up with something that works to protect lions."
Gilad said she studied lions in the mountains of West Texas and has reviewed Parks and Wildlife studies on lion home ranges and diet.
There is no comprehensive research that would provide a real number of lions in the state.
"We're early in the game," she said. "We want to make sure that we have a viable population. We are just beginning to contact organizations that have any stake or interest in mountain lion conservation in Texas."
Gilad said she already is hearing from landowners who consider mountain lion hunting and harvest — especially for the protection of livestock — to be a private-property issue. They don't want the government coming onto their property or controlling their lives, even in the form of seasons or harvest restrictions on lions.
That's not surprising. West Texans especially are extremely sensitive to any hint they might lose control over their land or their livestock.
Many of them consider lions a threat to be controlled when they show up. Kill one and there will be another one to replace him, they say. Often they're right.
Lions tend to travel the same corridors and live in the same canyons their ancestors did for decades. I've hunted with some of the old lion guys in West Texas, and they know where lions are going to live and how long it will take a new lion to move into territory vacated when a resident lion has been killed.
And the lions keep coming back.
"Compared to other states, our harvest estimates are toward the high end," Young said, indicating lions in Texas can sustain those harvest rates. "Not everybody is shooting them. We have a high genetic diversity in the West Texas population." That's another indication of a strong and viable group of animals.
Young said Parks and Wildlife could regulate harvest of lions through non-game status. Proponents could lobby the Texas Legislature for a change in status to a game animal, which would allow — though not mandate — closed seasons and harvest restrictions.
I have really mixed feelings about this. Should mountain lions, just by virtue of their being, count for more than a coon or a coyote?
My answer would be yes. We protect bears and wolves, though they've slid to threatened or endangered status because of loss of habitat and outright persecution.
Lions aren't endangered. I would kill one, though I don't think they should be shot on sight.
They have about as much habitat west of Interstate 35 and south of Interstate 10 as they ever did. They are rare sights but not necessarily rare animals. What we've been doing seems to be working. Maybe we should just leave them alone, the way they are.