Mountain lions: Understanding an elusive Texas icon

Zookeeper Stacy Lupori guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Dallas Zoo's male mountain lions Apollo and Lakai.

Dallas Zoo’s male mountain lions, Apollo and Lakai, were both born in 2009.

Many people are aware of the plight of better-known exotic animals around the world, like tigers, chimps, and elephants. But what about the animals in our own back yard who are suffering from both population and habitat loss? I’m an officer of the Dallas chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK), and we’re always looking for ways to help native wildlife. Last year, I started researching wildlife issues in Texas, and the status of mountain lions sparked concern.

As a former keeper of Dallas Zoo’s beloved mountain lions, Apollo and Lakai, I’ve always had a deep-rooted love for these big cats. But I was desperate to know more about their wild counterparts. Are mountain lions really important to keeping a balanced ecosystem? What are their numbers in the wild?

I reached out to Monica Morrison, who’s spearheading Balanced Ecology Inc.’s (BEI) Texas Mountain Lion Conservation ProjectBEI is a Texas-based conservation organization that addresses wildlife challenges in Texas and around the world. I’m here to share highlights on what I’ve learned, and the questions we need to answer to protect the future of this native Texan.

The Numbers

Overall, the U.S. mountain lion population is estimated at about 30,000. That’s not a very large number. Sadly, mountain lions have a range from complete to no protection in the 14 states where they reside. In fact, Texas is the only state with no protection or management implementation for mountain lions. They are considered non-game animals with an open season, meaning they can be hunted at any time with no limit on take.

Mountain lion have the largest range of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere.

Mountain lions have the largest range of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere.

So what exactly is their status in the Lone Star State? The most recent research was conducted about 20 years ago, so a true population estimate is unknown. Texas does have two distinct populations: the west Texas and the south Texas groups. The west Texas population is considered stable; it’s geographically connected to mountain lions from both New Mexico and Mexico, keeping the genetic variation at a healthy level.

However, the south population is imperiled. These mountain lions are isolated from any other group, with no connectivity to other populations. Adding more concern: Their primary habitat is being developed by Eagle Ford Shale at an unprecedented rate, which will continue to increase road traffic and human disturbances to these mountain lions.

Are they important?

Mountain lions are apex predators, which means they aren’t prey to any other animals. And because they’re an umbrella species, their decline directly affects the food web and biodiversity. Texas doesn’t have any other top predators, such as wolves, to control the population of herbivores and therefore their numbers boom.

The areas around water sources suffer the most. First, the herbivores begin to overgraze the vegetation on the river banks. These plants and trees prevent erosion by creating a stable bank and provide a protective cover for countless amphibians, reptiles and aquatic species. They also provide shade, and without shade the water temperatures rise. Many wildflower species can only grow on stream banks with saturated soil. Without stable, wet soil, these wildflower seeds cannot hold, leaving little for butterflies and bees to pollinate.

These silent predators hunt prey two to three times their own size.

These silent predators can hunt prey two to three times their own size.

In a nutshell, with no control methods in place, these areas soon become uninhabitable for most wildlife. In addition to affecting ecosystems, mountain lions help control the feral pig population and maintain a healthy deer population by preying on those who are weak, old, or infected with diseases. This lets the strong deer pass on their superior genes.

Are they dangerous?

To deer, feral hogs, raccoons, and a few other animals, mountain lions are a highly feared predator. But they’re not naturally harmful to people. Mountain lions are elusive, solitary creatures with large home ranges that avoid humans at all costs.

What about livestock? As mountain lion habitat becomes more and more fragmented, their home range becomes peppered with farms and industry. Mountain lions will come into these territories that were once theirs, searching for food, and stumble upon an easy meal: unprotected livestock.

Some very simple steps can deter mountain lions from preying upon livestock or pets. All animals should be brought indoors at night. If this is not possible, at least young, old or sick animals should stay inside. High fencing around the enclosure, topped with a string of hot wire or hot grass “planted” in front of the fencing, can work wonders. Motion-sensing lights and/or sprinklers will frighten off mountain lions, too. However, one of the best deterrents are herding dogs, like Anatolian sheepdogs or Great Pyrenees, that are trained to keep out the uninvited.

An unclear future

Mountain lions can jump an impressive 18 feet from the ground into a tree.

Mountain lions can jump an impressive 18 feet from the ground into a tree.

So how can we help make sure these animals remain a part of Texas culture? To maintain a stable mountain lion population, genetic variability must be maintained. The habitats they call home must be protected from further development. And we need to establish corridors that can connect the south and west populations.

Lastly, we need a management plan that requires a more accurate mountain lion count; enforces a specific hunting season that requires bag limits; protects breeding females; and allows for the population to remain genetically sound.

In my spare time, Monica Morrison and I are working with other researchers to get an accurate number on the troubled south Texas population. Once we understand their status, we will write a grant proposal that will establish corridors connecting Texas’s south and west populations.

Stay posted on our ZooHoo! blog for more updates as we work to secure a future for Texas’s iconic mountain lion.

(A special thanks to Texas master naturalist and big cat volunteer veteran of 15 years, Monica Morrison, for sharing her wealth of knowledge on mountain lions.)

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