Mountain lions are key to our Texas identity and should remain part of the landscape, says wildlife filmmaker Ben Masters, director of Deep in the Heart. He represents Texans for Mountain Lions and shares in this episode the organization's aim to save the dwindling mountain lion population in Texas and enlist residents to contact lawmakers to keep these wildcats from being shot and trapped into nonexistence. Marshall Hinsley reports.
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MARSHALL HINSLEY: They can weigh as much as a person. And at one time could be found everywhere in Texas, but over the last century, they've been shot, trapped, poisoned, and altogether exterminated and now no one knows how few are left.
The movement to save Texas mountain lions before they're gone forever, in this episode of the Texas Green Report, a production of Green Source DFW and the Memnosyne Institute.
I'm Marshall Hinsley.
Many people swear they've seen a wild cat, which turned out to be a stray house cat. But you'd know for certain if you ever came across an adult mountain lion. They have tawny beige fur with a white belly and mouth and distinctive black markings on the tips of their tails and around their snout.
From the tip of their nose to the end of their tail, they can span eight feet, though many measure up around three feet long, which is still bigger than your average orange tabby.
Whether you call them pumas, panthers or cougars, you'd never be able to outrun them. They can sprint up to 50 miles per hour.
They can roam a 30 square-mile territory and prey on coyotes, deer, raccoons and other animals in almost any habitat — from mountains, forest and prairies to swampy wetlands.
They have powerful legs that can leap 45 feet with ease.
They're intelligent, independent and mostly just want to be left alone.
BEN MASTERS: The wildest most awesome wild Texan that there is is the mountain lion.
MARSHALL HINSLEY: Ben Masters is a wildlife filmmaker, whose Fin and Fur Films is an Emmy-nominated production company focusing on wildlife, adventure and conservation stories. He's also part of a coalition called Texans for Mountain Lions, which is working to push the Texas Parks and Wildlife department to adopt sustainable management policies for mountain lions that will ensure that they'll never cease to be a part of the Texas experience.
BEN MASTERS: They're the animal that's culturally important. I think that it's an animal that is very important to our identity as Texans.
And I say that not just pulling fairy tales out of the air. If you look at the mascots in Texas high schools, of the top 10 mascots, you get the lion, the panthers, the wildcats and the cougars. So like this animal, it symbolizes a lot. I think it symbolizes a wild place, a place that hasn't been totally conquered and paved over and subdivided.
They need big territories to roam. And I feel like that right there is very important to the Texan identity. And there's many reasons why we should always have mountain lions. But I think that is one that everybody can agree on is, it's important to who we are as Texans.
MARSHALL HINSLEY: Masters says that mountain lions once roamed everywhere in Texas but have been hunted, trapped and otherwise killed off except for a few dwindling populations in remote regions. Now, no one knows how many are left and no one seems to be even trying to find out if mountain lions have a future in the state.
BEN MASTERS: Mountain lions used to live in all of Texas. They used to live in all of the lower 48. So they were in the swamps in East Texas. They were on the Canadian River breaks up in the Panhandle. They were on Caprock Escarpment. They were in Hill Country. They were down in South Texas and in West Texas.
Today, they're found only in West Texas and in South Texas, with the exception of an occasional cat that's dispersing and looking for a territory.
Those individuals can be seen at random. They'll travel hundreds of miles sometimes, and wind up in goofy places like Dallas. There was a cat in Dallas last year, and that was likely a dispersing cat that was looking for more cats, couldn't find any, just kept going.
MARSHALL HINSLEY: Masters says that that mountain lion was eventually found and shot dead.
The attitude that a minority of Texans take toward mountain lions is that they're fit only for being killed.
Texas is the only state in the nation that has no protections whatsoever for mountain lions. And even trappers don't have to check their traps as they do in every other state, which means that the mountain lions that they catch can spend days, even weeks in pain and misery before finally dying of blood loss, malnourishment or dehydration.
The neglect of mountain lions is a carryover from a former time when people failed to understand just how much they could alter the natural world and actually took pride in killing as many animals as they could with no thought that perhaps one day they might wind up killing them all.
BEN MASTERS: So mountain lions, along with other predators in the early 1900s were, trapped. They were poisoned. They were hunted with dogs or a hunted by people, primarily with dogs. There were some really famous hunters in Texas — probably Ben Lilly being the most famous — who killed hundreds of bears and mountain lions across Texas.
And their range has contracted. They're no longer found in East Texas, Central Texas. They're only found in West Texas and in South Texas. And the West Texas population is more stable than the South Texas population because they're getting a constant influx of cats from Mexico where they're protected as well as from New Mexico where they're regulated through hunting season.
So there's likely some influx from both the north and south in West Texas.
In South Texas, we don't know as much about those cats as we do in West Texas, but it's likely that a lot of that interchange between Mexico and South Texas has been cut off.
They did some genetic works in the early 2000s that indicated that the South Texas population and the West Texas population are not connected.
So in terms of viability, of being able to exist into the future, the South Texas population is certainly the one that's most concerning.
MARSHALL HINSLEY: In all other states, wildlife policies have evolved so that mountain lions remain a part of the wild animal populations of those states.
Texas, however, hasn't kept up with the times.
BEN MASTERS: Historically, in the early 1900s, late 1800s, there were a lot of unknowns. Like, we didn't really know how many wolves, how many bears, how many mountain lions there were.
And I think it was a very accepted principle of the times that there was no such thing as a good predator and that the United States was a better place, [better] off — to rid them of those — just to not have them on the landscape anymore.
Obviously that's changed quite a bit over the last century. Across the United States, there's been regulations and management put in place for mountain lions in every other state. Some states, they are entirely protected. Other states, they have a management system, where typically the suggested harvest is about 10 percent of the animals each year.
So they'll have a region in the state and the inside of that region they'll have a quota of animals that can be harvested every year.
The exception to that rule is Texas. Texas is the only state where we don't have any management of mountain lions. We don't have any regulations around mountain lions. It's still a free for all like other states were back in the early 1900s.
MARSHALL HINSLEY: And that's what Texans for Mountain Lions wants to change. They're calling on Texans — you, me and every other resident in the state — to urge state lawmakers to create wildlife policies that will ensure healthy populations of mountain lions in Texas. Specifically, they're pushing for six steps for healthy mountain lion management.
First, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department should conduct research to find out how many mountain lions are left in the state and where they are.
Second, they want hunters and trappers to be required to report their so-called harvests, as is already the case with antlerless white tailed, deer and other game species in certain counties.
Third, they want to ban the trapping of mountain lions for the sole purpose of moving them to a confined area so that people can shoot them without the cats being able to get away — so-called canned hunting or essentially target practice with live animals.
The fourth measure they want the state to take is a 36-hour trap check. That will require people who set traps for mountain lions to recheck the traps more frequently.
The fifth measure Texans for mountain lions is calling for is region-based management strategies for hunting mountain lions. For now, what Masters calls a hunting free-for-all can lead to mountain lion eradication, and that needs to change.
Finally, the coalition is calling for the state to create an advisory group consisting of diverse stakeholders to collaborate with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and establish a management plan for mountain lions.
Masters points out that none of these measures is especially animal rights focused.
Instead they're inline with general hunting guidelines.
And as for the 36-hour trap check, more than 30 other states require 24-hour trap checks in at least some trapping situations and for some trap types.
The coalition isn't even calling for game animal status for mountain lions or a limited hunting season.
BEN MASTERS: We think that what we're proposing is realistic. We've got to start getting some data. We've got to have some basic things in place to safeguard that these cats can continue to live in Texas because let's face it, our state is growing from 30 million people to 50 million people over the next three decades.
Our landscapes are getting further and further fragmented as ranches split apart with each generation. The existence of these cats shouldn't be taken for granted 10, 20, 30 years down the road. And we've gotta start putting some of these safeguards in place.
MARSHALL HINSLEY: You can join the effort to protect mountain lions in Texas by visiting TexansForMountainLions.org.
Deep in the Heart is a wildlife documentary narrated by Matthew McConaughey and featuring state-of-the-art cinematography of Texas's wild animals, including mountain lions, directed by our guest for this episode, Ben Masters.
'Deep in the Heart' is love letter to Texas wildlife