NOVEMBER 28, 2016


LOS FRESNOS — A bright yellow cautionary tale sits beside a birding trail that winds through the mesquite trees at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. The sign, in English and Spanish, reads “Warning Cougar Area.”

Whether that is accurate on any given day is problematic, because refuge officials and others think mountain lions are inside Laguna Atascosa periodically but not necessarily on a permanent basis. “I think it kind of raises alarm when it doesn’t need to be raised,” said Boyd Blihovde, the refuge manager, who says he inherited the warning signs when he arrived several years ago and has considered removing them. “But I feel like if we take them down, that’s when something will happen.”

The signs may be artifacts from a previous administration, but there have been recent mountain lion sightings at the refuge. “This past year we have had very credible sightings from at least two people,” Blihovde said. “One’s a volunteer who’s been working here many, many years, and they actually watched one for quite a while” through a spotting scope. “The other one was a biker who saw one twice,” he added. “That was on Bayside Loop which is popular for biking right now.”

Once practically extirpated as livestock predators east of the Rocky Mountains, there are an estimated 30,000 mountain lions in the United States today. And like the Texas population, the lions are migrating eastward. Credible mountain lion sightings have been made in at least a dozen Midwestern states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as Arkansas and Louisiana. Florida, of course, has a small remnant population in the Everglades.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says the big cats are found throughout the Trans-Pecos area, as well as the brush lands of South Texas and portions of the Hill Country. State biologists say mountain lions now occur in more counties than they did 10 years ago and are expanding their range west to east.

The reason mountain lions could be here today and gone tomorrow in South Texas is their great individual ranges which can cover as much as 370 square miles. Most of these mountain lion sightings are of young males, known as dispersers, who have been driven out of the area where they were born by older males.

“My feeling is that one or two mountain lions have Laguna Atascosa in their range, but they’re essentially such wide-ranging animals that they’re not here all the time,” said Hilary Swarts, a biologist at Laguna Atascosa and a cat expert. Michael Tewes, holder of the Frank D. Yturria Endowed Chair in Wild Cat Studies at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said sporadic mountain lion sightings have occurred at Laguna Atascosa for decades. “When I lived on the refuge during the 1980s, I made a plaster cast of a lion track — and I still have it — and walked within 15 steps of another on the Bayside Loop,” Tewes said. “I also found mountain lion tracks over the mud flats surrounding the small islands located between State Highway 4 and the Brownsville Ship Channel,” he added.

But Tewes doesn’t believe there is a significant breeding population of mountain lions in South Texas. What we are seeing are the occasional young males, the dispersers, and he says they can pop up almost anywhere in the region. Blihovde says the refuge signs were placed in areas where a mountain lion had been seen previously.

“Now we’ve seen ‘em in so many places, you could be pretty much assured that anywhere you go on Laguna you could see a wild cat like that,” he added.

The reason mountain lions are seen at all in South Texas has to do with their population increase leading them into new territory and available food sources — in this case, young nilgai antelope, white-tailed deer, feral hogs, javelinas, birds and rabbits. “For sure they’d take a young nilgai, they’d definitely take a young nilgai,” Blihovde said.

At the visitor center at Laguna Atascosa, there is ample information about refuge cats, both past and present. The refuge still harbors bobcats, ocelots and mountain lions, but the jaguarundi and jaguar are gone.

In 1946, a 200-pound male jaguar was shot and killed on San Jose Ranch near Olmito. Two years later, a jaguar was killed on Santa Gertrudis Creek near Kingsville close to U.S. 77. It was the last jaguar seen in Texas. The last jaguarundi in the Rio Grande Valley was hit and killed by a vehicle near Brownsville in 1986.

As for the “Warning Cougar Area” signs, biologist Swarts says she’s concerned some people might mistakenly conclude it’s too risky and decide against trekking out into the refuge’s wild areas. After all, there have been documented instances of mountain lions preying on humans, particularly in the West. But attacks by the secretive mountain lion are quite rare.

“I think people who aren’t as familiar with nature could view that as a deterrent, but it’s really a highly, highly, highly statistically improbable occasion” that a mountain lion might attack someone, she said.

“The last thing I want is for people to come here, whether they’re local or made a trip from The Netherlands, and have to worry about a mountain lion attack.”

Mountain lion (puma concolor)

LENGTH — 3-4 feet; tail is 2.5 to 3 feet

WEIGHT — 70 to 170 pounds

DESCRIPTION — A large, slender cat with a smallish head and noticeably long tail. Fur is a light, tawny brown color which can appear gray or almost black, depending on light

conditions. Contrary to popular belief, there are no black panthers in North America. Mountain lions are also called cougars, pumas, panthers, painters and catamounts.

BEHAVIOR — Secretive animals, they prey on a variety of animals, including deer, wild hogs, javelina, rabbits, jackrabbits and rodents. Some lions occasionally kill livestock or dogs.

DISTRIBUTION — Mountain lions generally are found in remote mountains, canyonlands, or hilly areas with good cover. It has the widest distribution of any wild cat, from Canada to South America. In Texas, the mountain lion is found throughout the Trans-Pecos, as well as the brush lands of South Texas and portions of the Hill Country. Sightings and kill reports — mountain lions can be hunted legally in Texas — indicate they are expanding their range to the east.