Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Trail camera snaps mountain lion, rare in Oklahoma

Trail camera near Atoka snaps a mountain lion
'I am a believer now,' Atoka man says about mountain lions being in Oklahoma

BY ED GODFREY The Oklahoman
Published: January 5, 2010

Ryan Ritter of Atoka couldn't believe what he was seeing on New Year's Day when he looked at the photos from his new trail camera.

Not only were there pictures of numerous deer and turkey, but the trail camera also had captured five photos of a mountain lion on two consecutive mornings.

"I was very shocked to see that on my camera," said Ritter, who admits he always has been skeptical about mountain lion sightings in the past.

"You hear a lot of stories all the time," said Ritter, owner of Ritter Express Pharmacy in Atoka.

"I am a believer now. Until those pictures I would have argued with anybody we didn't have any resident mountain lions, but obviously we do."

The mountain lion photographs were taken between 5 and 6 a.m. on Dec. 22 and 23. State wildlife officials say it's one of the rare instances of a confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in Oklahoma.

"We know we've got them, but we don't know where they are at or how many," said Alan Peoples, chief of the wildlife division for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "It's kind of hard to monitor something so secretive and so rare as a mountain lion."

Ritter, who is an avid outdoorsman, manages 2,500 acres of family-owned land in southeastern Atoka County near the Muddy Boggy River for hunting and trapping.

He speculates the mountain lion must have been traveling the river bottom and followed deer and turkey scent to his corn feeder, where the trail camera was located.

Ritter, whose father was a state wildlife commissioner in the 1990s, said his family has owned that secluded piece of property since 1993 and never before detected any signs of a mountain lion.

The subject of mountain lions in Oklahoma is a hotly debated topic. The Wildlife Department receives two or three reports of mountain lion sightings every month, but rarely can they be confirmed, Peoples said.

Each year, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry's wildlife services division investigates between 100 and 150 reported cases of mountain lions killing livestock, said Jack Carson, agency spokesman.

Only one time could it be confirmed that a mountain lion was indeed the culprit. That was in 2006 when a mountain lion killed a goat in Cimarron County.

Never has there been a reported mountain lion attack on a person in Oklahoma, Peoples said.

But there have been documented cases of mountain lions in Oklahoma in recent years, he said.

A Dewey County rancher once found the remains of a dead mountain lion, and a cougar was killed by a motorist at the Purcell exit on Interstate 35 several years ago, Peoples said.

Many years ago, a mountain lion was killed on the Black Kettle National Grasslands. That cat is on display in a museum in Roger Mills County, Peoples said. In 2004, a mountain lion was struck by a train in Noble County near Red Rock.

That mountain lion had a radio collar around its neck that had been attached by researchers in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The cougar had traveled 661 miles. State wildlife officials think most mountain lions in Oklahoma are transients.

It used to be illegal to kill a mountain lion in Oklahoma, but 2½ years ago that law was changed. It is now legal to shoot a mountain lion in Oklahoma if the animal is deemed to be a threat to humans or livestock.

The law requires the carcass to be brought to the Wildlife Department, but no one has checked in a dead cougar yet. Peoples said he thinks if mountain lions were common in Oklahoma, a hunter would have shot one by now.

Meanwhile, Ritter's trail camera photos are the talk of Atoka. After capturing a rare photo of a mountain lion in southeastern Oklahoma, could the legendary Bigfoot be next?

"I don't think so," Ritter said. "I am a realist."

But Ritter said he will be more cautious now when he takes his 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to the woods with him.

"I am already looking for a dog with a good sense of smell," he said.


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